Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer in Simulcast

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Opera announced their decision not to air John Adams' Death of Klinghoffer next season in simulcast.  Ostensibly, the reason was that the Met does not want to provoke anti-Semitic reactions throughout the world, even though Peter Gelb (the Met's general manager) stated that he did not feel that Klinghoffer was an anti-Semitic work.  His decision was reportedly made after talks with the Anti-Defamation League.  The work itself will still be performed, but its impact will not extend beyond the walls of the Met, at least in the words of Gelb.

The Met better start canceling quite a few simulcasts for next season, then.  Let's start with Wagner, whose Meistersinger is scheduled for December 13.  This music drama not only ends with a grand paean to the great German state, but was heard eagerly by Nazi audiences and has a character who--if not explicitly Jewish--displays a disconcerting number of traits that Wagner viewed as inherent to Jews.  Beckmesser cannot assimilate into society, cannot learn its art, and even has problems speaking the language correctly (this is not my argument alone; Barry Millington has done work on this topic)--all reasons that Wagner gave in his anti-Semitic essay, 'Das Judenthum in der Musik,' that they should not feel themselves as belonging to the German nation.  Whether Beckmesser is a Jew or not is a point that can be debated, but what cannot--or more importantly should not--be ignored are the implications that Wagner puts on this character.  At the end, having lost the song contest, Beckmesser is denied a wife due to his inability to learn a society's art.  His rival Walther, on the other hand, takes to the form naturally, even if his interpretation of the song rules is revolutionary.  Walther, then, belongs inherently to Nuremburg's society.  Beckmesser is tolerated, but does not (and cannot) truly belong--and with him, his bloodline will die.  So Peter Gelb, you better take this one off the simulcast too.

Other works that are being broadcast next year include Carmen and Tales of Hoffmann.  The character of Carmen may be a Jew, which was a common nineteenth-century understanding of the tale (again, not my take on it, Sander Gilman has written on this). Hoffmann features a prominent Jewish character in the third act named Peter Schlemiel, who has lost his shadow (in some versions of this story, he sold it to the Devil for an endless bag of gold).  So I guess the Met with either omit Act 3 in its entirety, which would be a shame without the barcarolle, or not do the simulcast.  The term 'Schlemiel' was taken from a Yiddish expression.  One could argue, I suppose, that Offenbach would not likely portray a character in an anti-Semitic way, since he was Jewish and was often the target of anti-Semitism--particularly that of Wagner.  But this completely oversimplifies the situation. 

And that is precisely what the Met is doing by omitting Klinghoffer from its simulcast program.  Adams' operas seek to document recent history, but Klinghoffer is the only one to date that remains controversial.  Nixon in China is a series of character studies from a significant moment in history.  It is a great opera, but not a very controversial work because it did not focus on politics and instead looked at individuals.  Doctor Atomic was a fine opera, but eschewed controversy because we all came to the same conclusion as our protagonist, Oppenheimer, at the end: nuclear weapons are bad (and won't somebody think of the children?).  Klinghoffer, on the other hand, engages in issues that continue to stir controversy today: the place of Palestine in the world; the function of terrorism; how the Middle East co-exists (or fails to co-exist).  It seems more cowardly to me for the Met to continue staging and broadcasting works that feature characters who could be seen as anti-Semitic, but openly concealing them by pretending that such issues are absent.  Perhaps it is time to take a look at the bigger picture of opera repertoire here and question why Klinghoffer is (in Gelb's words) too much for audiences 'at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe,' but that actual anti-Semitism is okay.  Klinghoffer is a work that questions the concept of heroes and villains (and their victims). Because it garners controversy, it demonstrates its power.  If anything, this work demonstrates that opera can still have a vital role in this world, while the 'museum pieces' such as Meistersinger and Tales of Hoffmann show just how out of touch we have become with the social issues that inform many of the works that remain in the repertoire.


  1. Be serious. Beckmesser "cannot assimilate"? He's the Nuremberg TOWN CLERK. What hogwash.

  2. It is hard for me to ignore the fact that Wagner explicitly lists the same character traits that he ascribes to Beckmesser to failed Jewish composers in his 'Judenthum' essay. Beckmesser is more than a simple buffoon. His mangling of the Prize Song language is definitely a quality that Wagner ascribed to Jews, and that Wagner felt prevented them from being true Germans. Furthermore, he can memorize rules, but he cannot apply them in an artistic way, which also mirrors what Wagner said in 'Judenthum.' Beckmesser's issues during the song contest stem from his misunderstanding of text and music, the two artistic elements that Walther takes on with such ease and grace. As I stated in my essay, you may not think that he is a Jew, but to ignore the parallels between what Wagner identifies as specifically Jewish traits and the qualities that he assigns to Beckmesser is, to me, ignoring his true intentions. Wagner portrays Beckmesser as unable to contribute to the 'true' culture of Nuremberg. Considering that Wagner was representing Nuremberg as the epitome of Germanness, then Beckmesser is what is holding it back from its true role as the core (and beacon) of German culture. Let's not forget that this opera dates from 1867, when these ideas of German nationalism were omnipresent in discussions about culture.

    It's worth bearing in mind what Wagner intended by his anti-Semitism. He was not advocating for a Final Solution, but he was stating that they were incapable of creating German art. Wagner likely would have made the exact same argument about French, Italian, and composers of any other nationality--as was commonly accepted during his lifetime, nation was inherently part of any creative work from an artist. However, he saw the Jews as particularly threatening because they had achieved such success with German (and international) audiences. Beckmesser may be accepted into Nuremberg in the sense that he can hold a position, but his art is worthless, even when he 'cheats' in his attempt at the Prize Song. This is Wagner's caution: that art by Beckmessers (and Mendelssohns and Offenbachs and Meyerbeers, as per 'Judenthum') may fool people on the surface, but underneath it is as flawed as what Beckmesser presents in the contest.

    It's worth noting that Nazi editors would continue to publish works by Jewish poets, but they assumed that these poets had stolen them from 'real' Germans, so they were listed as 'Anonymous.' This is what happened with Heine's famous 'Lorelei' poem. The logic goes as follows: such good poetry could never have been written by a Jew, so he must have stolen it, otherwise it would not resonate with Germans. That same idea informs Meistersinger. Beckmesser can't create his own song, he seeks to steal Walther's, but his inability to perform it demonstrates that he is incapable of creating art all together.

  3. Thank you for the long and thoughtful response. There is at least some merit in much of what you say. My quibble was with "cannot assimilate", which smacks of unthoughtful regurgitation of some of the sillier secondary literature. It's hard to get more "assimilated" than Town Clerk. I live in a little upstate New York village, and my Town Clerk's ancestors probably came over on the Mayflower. He is very "assimilated". Beckmesser *IS* Nuremberg. His artistry is the accumulation of centuries of native (German) tradition. This is very clear in the libretto. Walther comes along wants to push the envelope. The rest of the town decides to go along and Beckmesser is humiliated. "Holy German Art" is that instinct to move forward from the traditions of the past, holding on to what is valuable but creating new forms of expression at the same time. Beckmesser is a traditional Nuremberger. He is a respected member of the community. But he's a tight-ass and can't adapt. He's Old
    School German, and Walther is New School German. To make the Town Clerk a Jew is a little, well ... creative.

    1. Beckmesser's occupation is significant to his artistic shortcomings but not for reasons that would be obvious today. Wagner's Meistersänger drew on contemporary art historical themes that valorized and idealized the medieval craftsmen as ideal laborers. (The idea got started in the 1830s by an English art historian named August Pugin.) Of the 12 Meisteränger, 10 are explicitly artisan laborers. Beckmesser and Eisslinger are the outliers as town clerk and grocer, respectively. Anyway, medieval artisan laborers supposedly had a more direct connection to their artistic output and this provided superior quality of art. Some of these themes are also taken up in Act 1 of Siegfried, in which Siegfried is eventually convinced by Mime (who is annoyed that he keeps toiling to forge swords that will break) that the person who will use the sword must be the one who makes it. And thus Siegfried forges Notung.

      Now, I have no idea if Beckmesser's class status and occupation would suggest to an audience that he was a Jew. But my impression is that the stereotypes around intellectual labor, manual labor, and Jews is pretty old.

      And now a plug: If you want to learn more about the idealization of medieval craftsmen and how it was taken up by the likes of architect William Morris and harpsichord-maker Arnold Dolmetsch, you should come hear my AMS-Milwaukee talk.