19 June, 2014
Yesterday, Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera announced that the Met would cancel its Live in HD transmission of John Adams’s opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, scheduled for November 15, 2014, which tells the story of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and the killing of one of its Jewish passengers, Leon Klinghoffer, by a group of Palestinian terrorists. According to the Met’s press release, the decision was made in response to “an outpouring of concern that [the transmission] might be used to fan global anti-Semitism.” The official press release stated: “‘I’m convinced the opera is not anti-Semitic,’ said the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, ‘But I’ve also become convinced that there is a genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitsm, particularly in Europe.’ The final decision was made after a series of discussions between Mr. Gelb and Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, representing the wishes of the Klinghoffer daughters.”
I find this move by Mr. Gelb and the Met to be troubling on multiple levels. To begin with, let’s call it what it is; censorship. A group of people saying, “we don’t want that opera being presented because we don’t like its content” whether they’ve seen/heard it or not. Using the logic presented by Mr. Gelb in his decision to cancel the broadcast, should theatres cancel productions of The Diary of Anne Frank because a story showing how the Nazis dehumanized and then killed the hidden Jews “might be used to fan global anti-Semitism?” And why stop there? Should the Roundabout Theatre here in NYC close its production of Cabaret because its presentation of anti-Semitic behavior could be considered “inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe?”
And though Mr. Gelb firmly stated he is convinced The Death of Klinghoffer is not anti-Semtitic, but was bowing to the concerns of others, he has no problem regularly presenting the works of Wagner, which many people decry as anti-Semitic. In fact, the Met’s disastrous new production of the Ring Cycle was intended to be one of the centerpieces of Mr. Gelb’s legacy. So why cancel The Death of Klinghoffer? I guess the Met and the Anti-Defamation League draw a distinction between presenting Nazis and Palestinians.
The Met’s own press release states that “In recent years, The Death of Klinghoffer has been presented without incidetn at The Juilliard School (2009), the Opera Theatre of St. Louis (2011) and as recently as this March in Long Beach, California. The Met’s new production was first seen in London at the English National Opera in 2012, and received widespread critical acclaim.” Sounds like someone in the press department was subtly making it clear they didn’t agree with Mr. Gelb’s decision, either.
Mr. Gelb made a point of stating that he had not been pressured by any of the Met’s donors, but that he believed that some of the donors were under pressure from “people who object to the opera.” One of the purposes of art is to provoke conversation. And one of the responsibilities of those empowered to head arts organizations, today more than ever, is to fight back against censorship.
If Mr. Gelb was a true arts leader he might have taken the stand that Joseph W. Polisi, president of the Juilliard School took when the Juilliard Journal received a letter denouncing the school’s decision to perform The Death of Klinghoffer. That letter ended with the one-word sentence, “Shame!” Polisi responded, “I believe the ‘shame’ for Juilliard would more likely have occurred if we had not had the vision and the courage to present artistic works which we believe to be transformative compositions, worthy of presentation by our students and of reflection by our audiences.” He continued, “If we had decided against producing Adams’s opera in an effort to not offend audience members, we would have ignored our mission as an institution and community that teaches and enlightens through the wonder and power of the arts.”
In the face of the “outpouring of concern,” Mr. Gelb could also have followed the example of Opera Theatre of St. Louis who, when they presented The Death of Klinghoffer used it as an opportunity to have a number of interfaith dialogues. According to Rabbi Howard Kaplansky, the chairman of the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, Jews and Muslims attended together and discussed the opera, and the issues it raised, in what he thinks “was a constructive experience.”
Rather than cancel the transmission, a high-profile institution like the Met, could have put together a fascinating and diverse panel to have a live conversation about the opera as a part of the Live in HD transmission. But that would have taken a kind of backbone and leadership that Mr. Gelb clearly was unwilling or incapable of mustering.
Perhaps Mr. Gelb’s cowardly action would not bother me so much if he had shown the same respect for the outpouring of concern that another piece of Met programing created. When gay rights and human rights organizations and individuals called on Mr. Gelb to change the focus of the Met’s season opening production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin from a celebration of Russia, by dedicating the performance to the gay Russians being oppressed and victimized by the policies of Vladimir Putin and his cohorts, he refused, stating that the Met does not dedicate performances to political or social causes. I guess canceling performances for political and social causes is a different thing in Mr. Gelb’s mind. And so, as Vladimir Putin and his regime continued to enact ever more draconian anti-gay laws, as innocent gay men and women were being jailed and beaten in the streets, the Met not only refused to make a statement, it actually honored soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev; two favorites of Mr. Gelb who also happen to be unapologetic and very vocal supporters of Mr. Putin. By contrast, The Death of Klinghoffer was only going to be an HD transmission to theatres; it was not set to star and be conducted by members of Hamas who’d publicly advocated the destruction of Israel and death of Jews.
Apparently Mr. Gelb made the calculated decision (which I’m guessing had nothing to do with art or politics and everything to do with finances) that his Jewish donors are less forgiving than his gay and humanitarian-concerned ones. Mr. Gelb recently told the London Guardian that under his leadership, the Met might well be financially bankrupt within three years. Whether or not that comes to pass, whatever that once-esteemed organization’s artistic and financial state might be, it is clear that Mr. Gelb has driven it to moral bankruptcy.