Monday, August 25, 2014

John Adams Redux

For opera lovers, the Metropolitan Opera's live in HD broadcasts may be the best thing that has happened in recent years.   The Met's announcement in June that it was cancelling its worldwide broadcast of John Adams’s masterpiece The Death of Klinghoffer in the coming season is one of the worst.
In a press release, the company said that the decision was made 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.”  The Boston Globe newspaper responded: "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."

Composer John Adams
Like most operas by John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer is inspired by true events - this one by the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by four members of the Pelestinian Liberation Front.  The event is remembered mostly because of their gruesome killing of disabled Jewish-American tourist Leon Klinghoffer whose body was then thrown overboard.

I have been looking forward to the Met simulcast of The Death of Klinghoffer for many reasons.  Not least because I appreciate Adams's music, and this rarely performed opera is considered to be one of his best works.   I have a strong personal reason too.  Just a few years before the hijacking, I also was a tourist on the Achille Lauro, sailing from the South African port of Durban to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean on a Christmas cruise.  It would take a short novel to describe the two weeks on the ship with an Italian crew making every effort to keep the fun going during the two-week voyage.

Achille Lauro at Cape Town

Apart from a three-day stop at Mauritius, the entire time was passed on the ship at high seas, so cabin fever was a constant threat, and yet there was never a dull moment.  But one of  my most hilarious memories has nothing to do with organized entertainment.  It involves a Jewish couple who shared our dining table.  I did not immediately realize they were Jewish as such things are not of vital interest to me.  But I could not fail to notice that the wife regularly directed suspicious sniffs at the food and then muttered "don't you think this smells of bacon?"  Sometimes she would ask the server if there was bacon in a dish. Initially, I thought her concern was about calories or just plain dislike of bacon.  The husband largely ignored her remarks and one morning ordered bacon and eggs for breakfast to her indignant dismay.  Unperturbed, he said "this is kosher bacon," and proceeded to devour his breakfast with gusto amid hilarious uproar at the table.  It was only then that I understood the real reason for his wife's concern.
Hawaiian Evening on the Achille Lauro

As fate would have it, during my moves from continent to continent, I lost my Achille Lauro album, and of the only two photos I have left, one is of the Jewish couple with whom we shared many enchanted evenings on the ship.

Could I imagine at the time that the Achille Lauro would enter history as a site of a terrorist act, and a setting for an opera?

Adams's now famous Nixon in China had not yet been performed and the term docu-drama was largely unknown.  I don't think I had heard about the composer either, even though he had already garnered success with instrumental works such as Shaker Loops, Harmonium, and Grand Pianola Music.  I think I first heard of Adams when his opera Nixon in China arrived in Washington in 1988 and was dying to see it, but could neither afford the ticket nor a baby sitter.  Who wouldn't like to see Kissinger, Nixon and his wife, and various Chinese politicians on the operatic stage?  When the opera premiered in Houston in 1987, all of the principals could have attended except for Mao Zedong and Chou En Lai, who were dead.
Lounging by the ship's pool 

The Death of Klinghoffer was co-commissioned by several opera companies and it premiered in Brussels in 1991.  When it was staged later in the year by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it created an immediate controversy causing cancellations, especially from the American theaters.  The San Francisco performance in 1992 was picketed by Jewish advocacy groups, while the Los Angeles Music Center and Opera Glyndebourne – both co-commissioners of the opera – dropped plans to perform it.

Music critics gave The Death of Klinghoffer good reviews, some even said it is his best work.  And the composer’s reputation seems to have suffered little from the controversy. Quite the contrary, the New York Philharmonic commissioned him for a new work to mark the first anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center in the terrorist attacks. That composition, titled On the Transmigration of Souls, received the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.
I met Adams in 2004 at a concert in Alexandria, Virginia, which he conducted.  He explained what he did in The Death of Klinghoffer.  “I gave a voice to the Palestinian nation. I wrote choruses for them, and one of the terrorist tells the story of his childhood and the murder of his brother. And I gave them beautiful music as well as to Jews, and many people, particularly in America, thought that this was a terribly naive, even anti-Semitic thing to do," said Adams.  "I was in effect 'glorifying terrorism.'  But," he argued, “Shakespeare writes for Iago in Otello.  He gives him every bit as beautiful poetry.  Otherwise, it just would not have any impact, or power.”

In the meantime, the continued relevance of The Death of Klinghoffer spurred numerous revivals, especially in Europe, including a film version on BBC television, which is now available on DVD.  No particular disturbances were reported during those performances.

And now, after more than 20 years, this masterpiece has finally reached the Metropolitan Opera.  The Met has previously staged Adams's Dr. Atomic, which was written much later than Klinghoffer, and when this proved to be a success it also showed the much older Nixon in China.  A planned live in HD transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would make it accessible to tens of thousands of people around the world and those of us in the United States who cannot afford to fly to New York to see it.  But shortly after the good news was announced, the Met's general manager Peter Gelb made it known that the simulcast was off. It is hard to believe that this is happening in the country that so celebrates freedom of expression (of any kind) and so likes to criticize those that don't.  

Adams himself said that the cancellation of the international video and radio transmission “goes far beyond issues of ‘artistic freedom,’ and ends in promoting the same kind of intolerance that the opera’s detractors claim to be preventing.”   Gelb said he personally did not consider the work anti-Semitic.   But he apparently was persuaded that it could fuel "rising anti-Semitism, especially in Europe."  Like the Boston Globe commentator, I ask myself how that would happen. "Are the goons who dominate far-right parties in European countries really going to tune into opera broadcasts for their inspiration?" asks the Globe critic.  "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?"

Exactly!  John Adams said his music seeks to document his era for future as well as present generations.  “The themes that I have used in my theatrical works and the general emotional tenor of my instrumental music, I think, expresses what it is like to be alive right now," he said.  

Twenty-three years after its world premiere, The Death of Klinghoffer remains as relevant as ever, and will clearly remain so for many years to come.   Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti and other great opera composers battled censorship throughout their lives, but their masterpieces survived.   The cancellations must be painful for Adams, but they cement his place in the most exalted company. 

To hear the composer's comments see video attached in the article below:

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