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: