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Is This Opera Really Anti-Semitic?

06/18/2014 12:34 EDT | Updated 08/18/2014 05:59 EDT

On June 17, Peter Gelb, General Manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera, announced he would cancel a planned worldwide cinema broadcast of John Adams' haunting opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. Gelb bowed to intense pressure from the Anti-Defamation League, which was concerned the broadcast -- to quote from the Met's press release -- "might be used to fan global anti-Semitism" at a time when anti-Jewish attacks are on the rise, particularly throughout Europe and most recently with the murder of three people outside the Jewish museum in Brussels.

Fully intact are plans for the Met's November 2014 stage production of the opera, which transports audiences to the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the subsequent murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish-American passenger confined to a wheelchair. Four men took control of the ship while it was on a voyage from Alexandria to Port Said, Egypt. Echoing a tactic used with increasing frequency by today's terrorist groups, the hijackers demanded the release of 50 Palestinians who were at that time being held in Israeli jails. The Achille Lauro attack occupies a central place in the 'golden age' of Palestinian terrorism -- strategic acts that surprised and galvanized world attention, while expanding the range of targets beyond Israeli citizens.

Klinghoffer contains all the propulsive rhythmic energy and difficult, engaging vocal lines that are hallmarks of Adams' other operas, including Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic. With a libretto by Alice Goodman, Klinghoffer begins with the "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" followed by the "Chorus of Exiled Jews." Both are captivating and written with considerable sensitivity, although too often the Jewish-American tourists are portrayed as materialistic and only superficially attached to their Promised Land while the Palestinian narrative is treated with greater historical and emotional weight.

Indeed the whole opera has been criticized -- including by Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer -- as humanizing and even justifying acts of terrorism. For their part, Adams and his collaborators have said their intent was to give both Israeli and Palestinian voices equal airtime. Yet these critics are misguided insofar as they equate theatrically representing the Palestinian movement with "sympathizing" with its most extreme elements. The most overtly anti-Semitic aspect of Klinghoffer -- an offensive scene featuring two of Klinghoffer's fictional Jewish neighbours -- was removed by Adams following the opera's premiere.

Yet protests and campaigns led by Klinghoffer's daughters have caused productions in Glyndebourne and Los Angeles to be shelved, and several others to be delayed or stifled. The attacks of September 11, 2001 also prompted the cancellation of performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It seems the fewer opportunities Americans have had to view the opera for themselves, the more their assumptions have been cemented, namely that the opera sought to provide a forum in which terrorists can find their grievances and acts legitimized.

Some years later now in 2014, the Met's show is not in jeopardy, largely thanks to Gelb's persistence and Adams' (deserved) popularity. (Of course, unless the Met faces a lockout or strike due to protracted union negotiations).

Gelb's decision to cancel the live broadcast -- part of a popular series beamed to cinemas in over 60 countries -- was the right one, yet he will have to answer a key question: on what grounds did the Met decide that its global cinema broadcast was more likely to inspire anti-Semitism in audience members than its live performances in New York?

I believe the cancellation of the broadcast is justified solely on the grounds that the Met lacks the human resources and physical capacity to oversee the sorts of interfaith and conflict transformation initiatives that have accompanied successful productions of The Death of Klinghoffer elsewhere, including in St. Louis in 2011.

In advance of the St. Louis production, leaders in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities came together to create an innovative interfaith dialogue program. The group also developed several insightful and downloadable resources to assist communities in steering conversations towards the constructive lessons that Adams' opera can offer.

Gelb says he does not feel the opera is anti-Semitic -- and indeed this is a debate matched in hyperbole only by the debates over the playing of Wagner's music and operas in Israel, although in that case the anti-Semitism within the work is more established as fact. But the reality is, now that Gelb has admitted the dissemination of the opera to a global audience could "fan global anti-Semitism," he cannot deny that the live stage production could have a similar effect in the Big Apple.

The difference is that within the bounds of New York, Gelb -- along with composer John Adams -- can act to ensure his production of Klinghoffer provides a springboard for constructive dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the history and enduring impact of terrorist acts and networks. In short, they can adapt the successful community partnership model used in St. Louis.

The Met should build partnerships with groups like Encounter -- whose well-honed approach to conflict transformation allowed me to have a very meaningful experience in Bethlehem in 2012 meeting Palestinian civil society and youth leaders -- as well as the Bridges: Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Dialogue at New York University, among many other potential partners.

The Death of Klinghoffer is an impressive and intense musical masterpiece that deserves to be seen and heard -- and not just by the Met's New York audience. Gelb is right to cancel the worldwide broadcast at a time when radical extremists are looking to exploit any political, cultural and societal overtones in furthering their anti-Semitic aims. At the same time, Gelb must look to build partnerships within his own city limits to ensure the production inspires bridge-building and does not foment hateful attitudes.

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