Rage foments at the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer, a theatrical work that some accuse of being vehemently anti-Semitic and sympathetically pro-terrorist.
Lincoln Center’s large piazza, centered by a glorious fountain that rises and falls – much like a stage curtain – and glimmers and glows in the night sky – much like the famous Swarovski crystal chandeliers that grace the inside of the Opera House – has been crowded with people raising placards of protests and talking to one another and the press about why the production should be shut down and not allowed to be performed at all.
Shut down. Not allowed to be performed. Seen. Heard. Discussed. Pondered. Argued about.
One would think this kind of thing doesn’t happen in New York City, a community committed to the expression of the arts in every form, and necessarily therefore committed to the never ending dialogue about the complex and frequently political issues raised by the artistic members of that community, none of which would matter were it not for the people who choose to be audience members of that cultural community.
But it does happen in New York City, and in fact it is even championed by our former Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who, throughout his term was variously offended by artist Renee Cox placing her naked self (instead of Christ) at the center of her work of art entitled Yo Mama’s Last Supper at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, as well as Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, which included imagery Giuliani thought was offensive to Catholics (Giuliani is a Catholic). Our Mayor went so far as to try to shut down the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum that exhibited Ofili’s work, an endeavor at which he failed because of the First Amendment (see link below).
The controversy about The Death of Klinghoffer took me all the way back to 1987, when I was a member of the cast in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s über controversial play, Trash, the City, and Death at ABC No Rio on the lower East Side of New York. That play had also been a political hot potato (its lead character was called The Rich Jew), having been shut down at a staging in Frankfurt in 1985. Before he died, Fassbinder had declared that the play could only be performed in Frankfurt or in New York.
Nick Fracaro, the director of our production, decided that his Thieves Theatre group would take on the controversy, not for controversy’s sake, but to explore the dialogue itself, to explore the context of the society in which Fassbinder’s characters lived, and how the culture born of their interaction could lead to the circumstances and events he laid out by in Trash, the City, and Death, (ABC No Rio link below).
I well remember being asked by friends whether I, as a cast member, thought the play was anti-Semitic and I remember saying that I didn’t know how artists were supposed to resolve the seemingly inherent conflict between writing about (and performing in) something fraught with political, racial and religious tension, and bringing to light for the purpose of discussion those exact political, racial and religious tensions.
None of my fellow cast members took Fassbinder’s play, and the controversy surrounding it, lightly. We spent hours discussing its plot, what it meant, the nature of anti-Semitism, the holocaust and the unimaginable sorrows, pain and horror of that nightmare.
As an actor and theatre director, as a lifelong art, music, poetry and literature lover, and as someone who frequents all kinds of movies, theatre productions and museum shows, I am continually thankful for the opportunity to see productions and exhibitions that spark conversation, even if that conversation isn’t always easy, pretty, pleasant or agreeable.
Sometimes my aim is to be entertained. Sometimes my aim is to become familiar with an art form I am ignorant about. Sometimes my aim is to push the boundaries of my own understanding. Sometimes my aim is to immerse myself in a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Sometimes my aim is just to watch, to listen, to read, to absorb…to experience.
I have lived in New York City since 1978 and I do try, whenever a particularly controversial artistic endeavor has inspired the kind of response that surrounds The Death of Klinghoffer to get a ticket and attend. The controversy doesn’t interest me, per se, but making up my own mind does interest me.
Being able to decide for myself what a play is about and what it means, being able to listen to lyrics for myself and determine what they mean, being able to look at a work of art in a museum or an art gallery and come to my own conclusion about it…this does matter to me.
Were I an executive at the Met, I might use this as an opportunity to present extra performances of the piece and to invite a wildly diverse audience – people from different backgrounds, religions, cultures and professions – to see the show and to have, afterward, an open discussion with the cast about it, which is often done when playwrights present work in out of town tryouts, so to speak.
My husband and I were discussing the Klinghoffer controversy last night and his response (he is Jewish) was, “Looks like we need to go and see for ourselves what this is all about.”
Now my only question is whether it will either be shut down before we have that opportunity, or if it will be sold out. In which case we’ll just have to dig up the libretto and listen to the music ourselves at home.
Not the same thing as a live performance, but at least we won’t be robbed of the opportunity to have our own opinion. What is particularly fascinating is that so many of the people protesting this opera have not seen it.
But if I am to join the number of placard-raisers in the Lincoln Center piazza, I want at the very least to have seen the thing about which I am protesting. Ah, Yes…the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
One has the right to protest, and one also has the right to perform.
Or is it the other way around?
Trash, the City, and Death at ABC No Rio:
Rudolph Giuliani and the First Amendment:
October 24, 2014 at 2:21 pm
One word: Skokie
(Nice to “see” you.)
October 24, 2014 at 3:23 pm
Jodi Kaplan Nice to “see” you, too. Yes, Skokie. The right to peacefully assemble. And to peacefully argue? And debate? And march? And discuss? And examine? And query? 😉
October 24, 2014 at 4:40 pm
I don’t think we are talking about government action being proposed to shut down the production. If people protest and the producers of the work choose to bow to that pressure and shut it down, that does not involve the 1st Amendment. That is market forces at work and I have absolutely no problem with closing an exhibit, shutting down a play, etc. that the people of the community find offensive or in some way not fitting with the prevailing viewpoint. If the city got involved or some other government entity, I would have a serious problem with that – regardless of whether I agreed with the viewpoint of the artist or not.
I support Mr. Giuliani in his right to protest something he finds offensive and wrong. The Met does have a right to put on the show – and the people outside also have the right to try to shut it down. I will say this – putting on an opera that is sympathetic to the Palestinian Liberation Front viewpoint at a time when Jews around the world are under attack is at best insensitive. Insensitive doesn’t necessarily mean it should be shut down, but I do question the decision to put it on in the first place.
October 24, 2014 at 6:12 pm
As I wrote so clearly in my post Daniel Bobke I don’t know one way or the other whether it is anti-Semitic or Pro-Palestinian because I have not yet seen it, but I hope to.
I respect the right of the Met to put the opera on and the right of the public to protest. I would like the opportunity to make up my own mind and not be swayed, one way or the other, by either the Met itself, or those protesting the opera.
For what it’s worth, the Met has nothing to gain by intentionally putting on an opera to offend, particularly in New York City. It is a serious organization and that is not its mission. And John Adams has nothing to gain by intentionally trying to offend or hurt. Mr. Adams is respected and highly regarded, and I’ll wager not enjoying the furor at all. There is an interesting article about him in the Wall Street Journal that describes him as “direct, humble, curious and reflective,” if you care to read it.
October 24, 2014 at 6:48 pm
If only more people who protested were actually using first-hand apprehension and knowledge. 🙁
October 24, 2014 at 6:52 pm
Daniel Bobke I do want to say that were I a teacher of music, or opera, or theatre, or art at any school, whether highschool, private or college, or graduate, were I asked my opinion about The Death of Klinghoffer or Trash, the City, and Death, or Holy Virgin Mary or Yo Mama’s Last Supper, and whether any of these are or are not racist, anti-Semitic, offensive or hurtful in any other way, I would want to be able to have a fully informed “opinion” to give my students based on having seen, listened to, read and digested the work in question, rather than only being able to have an opinion based on hearsay. I think responsible people want to be fully informed, so that they can have a complete conversation, not just half of one.
October 24, 2014 at 7:07 pm
Well T. Pascal it’s interesting, because what I have yet to hear (unless I have missed it) is where specifically in the libretto it is either clearly anti-Semitic or clearly pro-Palestinian. I suspect I’m not going to be able to find that unless I go myself.
In this regard I’m deeply suspicious of crowd opinion – either pro or con – because there is usually such a charge to things like this. I would like to be able to follow this up and write, either, ‘Yes, I think it is and here is why….’ or ‘No, I don’t think it is and this is why…’
Good grief it’s expensive to go, but being informed isn’t supposed to be free or cheap, is it?