Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Night At The Opera (Klinghoffer edition)

It's not every day that a headline referencing opera graces the front page of the New York Post:

And perhaps that's a good thing.  Because what this cover does, in one hyperbolic headline, is remind us all of how misinformed the general public is about opera while simultaneously misleading the reader into thinking that murder happened over the Klinghoffer protests (that's inaccurate...but this is the NY Post here people.  Just a Buck!).  Murder is a relatively common phenomenon in opera, of course--in fact, when I taught music history survey, my students and I would track sopranocide over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries based on the works that we studied.  If you're curious, it increases markedly.

This headline reminded me of a time when I attended a Met Opera broadcast of Salome, which my local movie theater had rated G for general audiences.  In case you are unfamiliar with the work, it features a beheading, a strip tease integral to the plot, and a woman singing to a decapitated head for an extended amount of time.  She also kisses the decapitated head.  A couple of theaters over, High School Musical 3 was playing, which was rated PG, indicating that parental discretion was advised.  In case you are unfamiliar with this work, it features high school seniors confronting the fact that they will be heading off to different places once high school is over.  To the best of my knowledge, it involves no beheadings, strip teases, or characters singing to/kissing decapitated heads.  What I see here is a perception that opera, as high art, does not deign to discuss subjects in sordid ways, and so can be consumed by all.  The recent controversy over Carmen by the West Australia Opera seems to suggest the same; the company decided that because smoking is depicted on stage, it was inappropriate to show (this decision also came in tandem with a partnership between the opera company and a healthcare company).  Certainly, if Carmen continued to smoke during her lifetime, she could suffer from devastating side effects, such as  cancer and heart disease.  But since she is choked to death by Don José in Act 4, I'm not sure that smoking is the most dangerous factor in this opera.

Controversies surrounding high art wane over time and, one could argue, are often less about the art itself.  A century ago, The Rite of Spring was sufficiently avant garde to warrant boos at its premiere (although likely this had more to do with the ballet than the music); twenty-seven years later, it served as background music for dinosaurs in a Disney film.  Prior to its debut in 1905, Salome was banned from several theaters because of its sordid subject matter.  There is little question that art should be controversial and should promote new and more complex understandings of the world.  There is also little question than when it does, it fuels protest.  Perhaps, then, Klinghoffer is one of the more successful modern works solely on its ability to confront contemporary issues--unlike the rated-G Salome.

It's worth acnkowledging that the furor surrounding Klinghoffer delves into the subject of the opera rather than the opera itself--few people seemed to be upset by Adams' compositional approach.  Protestors included people in wheelchairs wearing signs that said 'I am Leon Klinghoffer,' which seems like all kinds of wrong:

Klinghoffer was an American Jew who was shot by Palestinian terrorists while aboard the Achille Lauro in 1985.  This somewhat-ripped-from-the-headlines opera (it premiered in 1991) considers the position of Klinghoffer and the Palestinians, professing to offer viewpoints from each side.  Undoubtedly, much of the controversy over the Met's staging has to do with timing: the conflicts that took place in Israel this summer between factions of Palestinians and Israelis brought these same issues to the fore and do not have easy answers.  But the answer is not to simply ban the work.

I don't want to argue that the fact that Klinghoffer engenders controversy means that it is good, relevant art.  That is overly simplistic.  Bad art can also engender controversy.  What does argue in its favor is the fact that directors and artists continue to find value in it beyond the controversial subject matter.   The ultimate jurisdiction should be the work itself, which appears to have been successful in the pages of less incendiary publications.  Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times was impressed with the opera, libretto, and performance, addressing the concerns often leveled at the work in his review.  I'm sure that many of us could only hope that the work itself, and not merely the subject matter that it addresses, would be treated in the same way.  It's okay for an individual to dislike Klinghoffer for whatever reason: whether it is because the opera is viewed as elevating terrorists to heroes or because of the portrayal of Klinghoffer in stereotypical ways or because Adams' music isn't your thing.  What is less okay, to me, is limiting the ability of the public to make this decision.  The Met has taken only a tepid step in this direction by staging the work, but not broadcasting it in theaters.  But at least the show did go on.

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