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The Opera-Killers

A youthful protester (© Coco T. Dog)

Last night’s pre-opera “Klinghoffer Affair” dwelt on anti-Semitism, but it was hardly “l’affaire Dreyfus”. The actual opera had its shares of “boos” and hisses from the audience, but they were courteously reserved for moments between the scenes, so was hardly equal to the opening of Le Sacre.

Still, this most unfortunate incident was headlined in New York tabloids, had a half-page coverage in Le Monde, was published internationally, and to those of us who arrived at the opera two hours early to catch what we thought would be a fairly humorous event, the pre-opera protests turned out to be mean, vitriolic, filled with irrational hatred by New York’s most Great, Good and Affluent.

The celebrities included an ex-New York State Governor, an ex-New York City Mayor, various Congresspeople, and seemingly dozens and dozens of leaders from endless Jewish/Israeli organizations, as well as a half-dozen rabbis. Whatever their reasons, whatever their rationales, their verbal acid, little of which was reported in the papers, it was worse than the most demagogic politics.

The only mild comment (“We disagree with the message, but the Met has every right to show the opera”), was greeted with silence and moans. The other categories of condemnation I quote below exactly as spoken.

1. Blackmail: “We, the Jewish Community are the financial foundation behind New York’s culture, and when we take our money from the Metropolitan Opera, it won’t exist.”

2. Threats: “We don’t want anything untoward to happen when the opera is going on. But if something does happen to (Met General Director) Peter Gelb, it will be his own fault.”

3. Historical Fatalism: “When they show this piece of trash, I am not saying that we will go back to Nazi Germany. But we can become 21st Century France, where every day Jewish children are beaten on their way to school.”

4. Moral Equivalence: “How can you compare Israelis with Palestinian terrorists? How do you give them Moral Equivalence?”

5. Opera Vilification: “This is not art. This is anti-Semitism posing as art. To those others who ask us see the filth before we speak, I say, you don’t have to swim in a cesspool to know that it’s a cesspool.”

6. Personal Abuse: “Peter Gelb is a moral moron” “

7. The Enemies List: The list of enemies had nothing to do with the opera. John Adams was mentioned once, since “his great friend was (the late Palestinian intellectual) Edward Saïd”), librettist Alice Goodman was not mentioned at all. Instead, the hisses were given on command for Gelb, then the New York Times, the United Nations and the present Mayor, Bill DeBlasio, who said that Americans should support art, not tear it down.”

Having lived in China for awhile, I almost cracked up with laughter when one of the leaders said, “If Bill DeBlasio should come to us and apologize, we will forgive them.”

Unintentionally, this was straight from the Chinese Politburo political catechism.

All of this shouted to a crowd of about 500, most with badges saying “Never Again” and posters saying, in different ways, that “The Met Glorifies Terrorism”.

How did all this happen? On one side, many older Jews honestly believe that any criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic. On the other hand, the sanguine view of John Adams himself that "Terrorism is a symbolic act" is hardly acceptable to anybody.

Yet when New York Jews look at the Middle East, and when they look at what appears to be a volcanic surge of anti-Semitism in Europe, when they see that the vast majority of Americans weren’t even alive during the Holocaust, they seem more and more on the defensive.

But that line of defense couldn’t exist in thin air. It needed a catalyst. And while Klinghoffer had already been produced three times in New York, as recently as six years ago, opera is not exactly a flashpoint. Even Wagner’s anti-Semitism is shrugged off as “long ago.”

This case was different. The most vociferous Jewish group, the “Anti-Defamation League” (ADL) (which never stops defaming those who criticize Jews) heard about the opera and approached–with great publicity–Peter Gelb, asking him not to produce an opera which few people had heard of (much less heard). But the ADL Chairman, Abraham Foxman, has especially large antennae for anything which even hints at anti-Judaism. And somebody had told him of this.

Little did Mr. Foxman realize that he was digging a pit in which he would be thrown.

Since Mr. Foxman had no interest in opera per se, and knew nothing about Klinghoffer, Gelb was as diplomatic as possible, and said that it would still be produced, but they would not broadcast it, as they do other operas, and they would include a letter protesting the opera from the daughters of Mr. Klinghoffer. (That letter was indeed included and sensitively done.)

The ADL was satisfied at that time. But as the antagonism to the opera increased, and Foxman the Compromiser’s name was hissed at the protest. In fact, the ADL, which usually leads at these protests, was nowhere to be found, and Mr. Foxman was told, Chinese Politburo style, to “apologize” for his malfeasance.

Now, like the opening choruses of Klinghoffer, the slow rumble of discontent began to crescendo. Ignorant right-wing radio hosts launched into this “anti-Semitic opera”. Rabbis whispered from their podiums that they couldn’t believe such an opera would be produced.

Still, this was done from sheer ignorance. So now, various rabbinical committees elected to have the libretto actually read by selected individuals. At this point, the calumny began.

The readers took passages which were distinctly anti-Jewish and distributed these individual passages to a database which must have included hundreds of thousands.

Yet these were words uttered (in Ms.Goodman’s words) by the terrorists on board the ship they had hijacked. They excerpted these admittedly venal lines about the “fat Jews” etc, and said that this was the entire opera’s purpose.

Out came a few–very few–people who said that these were the lines from Arab terrorists! Did one expect to hear them praising bagels and lox?

That was dismissed–and unfortunately those who could make the case that this opera had its balance, simply shrugged off the cries.

A typical poster (© Coco T. Dog)

Now the anti-Klinghofferites with stamina, strength and organizational genius, got their act together. Not only did the Palestinians have quantitively more choruses and more solos, but (said one), “The Palestinian music is more beautiful than that of the Jews.”

This was indeed not only subjective, but a silliness. I personally prefer Scarpia’s Act I finale to Tosca’s Vissi d’arte any time. Boito’s Mephistopheles is remembered far more than Faust. Alice Goodman herself put it another way.

“The terrorists are not Smurfs. We don’t have to have a drumroll before each terrorist song to know they are evil. Why do they have to sing ugly music? Will people love evil if we give terrorists beautiful music to sing?”

By this time two weeks ago, the die was cast, and the politicians joined a Rabbinical chorus loud enough to shame Adams’ most fortissimo choruses. It seemed that everybody in Upper West Side or Upper East Side Manhattan (not Greenwich Village, where I live) was talking about this.

Last week at a Midtown restaurant, a nearby elderly couple was talking about “the shame that Jewish city like New York should have this.” I held back and said New York was not “Jewish” and the operas was not musically “shameless.”

(Don’t misunderstand me. I had mixed feelings about the production and the music. But my colleague Paul du Quenoy is giving his critical comments in the section reserved for that.)

I ran into a doctor ten days ago, also fuming, daring me to name a single opera at the Met which criticized Black people. I told him, “Well, Otello, of course, where he Moor goes mad, and Gruenberg’s Emperor Jones, where the hallucinatory Caribbean dictator kills himself.”

He snorted and moved on.

I have tried, in the meantime, to explain that Alice Goodman and John Adams had attempted, with varying success, to explain the complexity of the story (I rarely came to the music), to show, in Adams’ words, “what prompts these individuals to do what they do. What in their background, what is the mythology that they grew up with, forced them or dared them to take this action, terrible, brutal decision to kill this man?” (My italics)

Yet never have I been able to explain this, or the music based on Bach, or on the most stunningly beautiful aria or monologue at the end of the opera, with Mrs. Klinghoffer speaking of her loss.

This is a case of emotion, pure and simple. Politicians of both parties, all religions, feed on emotion the way vultures feed on carrion. And in this protest, the harsh voices, the self-satisfaction, the arrogance, the confidence of knowing the Answer, the entreaties for Gelb to admit he was wrong, Inquisition style, rose above the opera itself.

Nor did I ever get to explain the ultimate irony. That Death of Klinghoffer was made into a film, and that film was to be the highlight of the Palestinian Film Festival.

The movie was never shown. The judges at the Palestinian Film Festival felt, after much consideration, that–I kid you not–the movie was “too pro-Jewish and too anti-Palestinian.”

Incidentally, the real proof that nobody knew anything about music came in a posters prominently raised above the crowd with the sign, “Tenors and Terrorists Don’t Mix.” They sure don’t. Not even an Arab terrorist would want to socialize with an opera tenor!

Harry Rolnick



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