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.