Klinghoffer Must Go Forward, But Composer John Adams Is Insufferable

Categories: Opera

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I haven't seen John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer but I hope to have a chance to do so. Given Adams' public pronouncements, however, I'm finding it doubtful he has genuine insight to share on the subject of terrorism.

For those who don't know, The Death of Klinghoffer depicts the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of an elderly disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, by the Palestine Liberation Front. It's of a piece with Adams' historical-political operas Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China, not to mention his beautiful orchestral and choral work On the Transmigration of Souls, for the victims of 9/11.

Since its 1991 premiere, Klinghoffer has been staged a number of times, most recently in March by the Long Beach Opera in California. This fall the Metropolitan Opera plans eight performances, despite angry calls from some in the Jewish community to cancel the production.

Peter Gelb, the Met's General Manager, did agree to scrap a Live in HD transmission to 66 countries worldwide. That move in turn prompted denunciations from the editorial page of the New York Times, John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune and others, including the composer himself.

Von Rhein calls Klinghoffer "a nuanced meditation on Middle East violence and religious intolerance that examines the social, economic and political conditioning that drives such acts of unspeakable inhumanity." Detractors claim that Adams and Alice Goodman, his librettist, portray terrorists sympathetically at best, or countenance anti-Semitism at worst.

Concertgoers should be allowed to decide for themselves. Hounding an arts organization to cancel its programming is censorious and sets a terrible precedent.

But if Adams' goal is to encourage reflection, or in the words of Klinghoffer director Tom Morris to "spend some time wrestling with the very difficult questions that arise from this very difficult conflict," then surely there's more to wrestling than a mere pat on Adams' back for his great moral sophistication (and by extension the audience's own).

Of course I'll reserve judgment on the opera until I see it. But Adams' statements in the run-up to the Met production, and at the time of the Long Beach shows, are fair game right now. In his regrettable way, Adams is sparking the discussion of terrorism that he wants, well before the first note is played in October.

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Metropolitan Opera House

10 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY

Category: Music

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