The Metropolitan Opera’s announcement last week that it was cancelling the worldwide live broadcast of its production of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” next fall due to the work’s sensitive political content sent a shockwave through the theater and classical music communities and beyond. The wrong-headedness of the Met’s decision sets a bad precedent for arts organizations and violates the vital notion that difficult ideas can be confronted and discussed through the arts.
Adams’s opera (with a libretto by Alice Goodman) concerns the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and their murder of a Jewish-American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. In that incident, the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer was shot and pushed overboard. The 1991 opera has been criticized by some for being insufficiently sympathetic to the Klinghoffer family and too sympathetic to the terrorists. Adams has denied any such intent, and supporters of the work have praised it for its humane presentation of all points of view. Despite complaints from the Klinghoffer family, the piece has been performed multiple times at a variety of international venues without any adverse incidents.
The Met’s decision to cancel both the live, high-definition theater transmission and the radio broadcast was made after the company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, was approached by Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. In a press release, the Met said that it had made the decision in response to “genuine concern in the international Jewish community” that the broadcast would be “inappropriate in this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”
Both Gelb and Foxman have stated that they do not consider the work anti-Semitic (Foxman says he has not seen it). So the fear is only that this complex contemporary opera may somehow fuel the flames of anti-Semitism. Just how that would happen is unclear. Are the goons who dominate far-right parties in European countries really going to tune into opera broadcasts for their inspiration? The only other justification for cancelling the broadcast of the production (which will still be performed on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, as planned) is that some audience members might take offense. If that’s the case, why produce opera at all?