Met's Klinghoffer Cancellation Reignites Old Debates

Thursday, June 26, 2014

'The Death of Klinghoffer' at Long Beach Opera in March 2014 'The Death of Klinghoffer' at Long Beach Opera in March 2014 (Keith Ian Polakoff)

The Metropolitan Opera's decision last week to drop its HD and radio broadcasts of the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer continues to draw strong responses – from newspaper editorial boards, anti-censorship groups, and music critics around the world. But this is only the latest chapter in the fraught history of this work.

The opera's January 1991 premiere at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels took place in a tense atmosphere around the launch of the Gulf War, and patrons were greeted with metal detectors in the lobby (a rarity at that time). After the U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March 1991, two co-commisioning organizations – the Glyndebourne Festival and Los Angeles Opera  decided to drop Klinghoffer from their schedules. And in 2001, the Boston Symphony dropped a scheduled performance of choruses from the opera. 

But in recent years, performances have gone off as scheduled, and with mostly minimal debate; many critics have lauded the work's music and drama. The dialogue ramped up again when the Met cancelled its HD broadcasts, citing fears by Jewish groups that it could incite global anti-Semitism.

In this week's podcast, Mark Swed, the classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times and longtime Adams-watcher, tells us what he thinks is behind the outcry.

Segment Highlights:

What's driving the recent outcry over the opera

"It's a lot of hearsay. The people who have only reacted very superficially to the opera have been very loud. There has been a lot of misinformation. It's very easy to drum up outrage these days. You have opinions that are being promoted through social media and all the ways that you can now make a lot of noise without knowing anything and without having any ability to create a context."

On whether concerns of anti-Semitism are justified

"Not at all. The problem with the opera of course is that there are anti-Semitic lines that are said by the terrorists. But that's what terrorists say. It would be highly unrealistic if they didn't have anti-Semitic attitudes and were hijacking the Achille Lauro. It would be like making a movie about Hitler in which he only said nice things about the Jews...

"It's easy to hate your enemy. But to understand your enemy, to understand where your enemy is coming from, and to even have some feeling for that, and then be horrified by that person – that is so much stronger than a simple good guy, bad guy movie."

On the production itself

"I actually didn't think this Klinghoffer production would be a problem. It treats the opera almost like a thriller. It's the least controversial of any production I've seen. And in fact, once people see it, I don’t think that there's going to be a problem."

Listen to the full segment above and tell us what you think about the opera and its reception below:


Listen to Stitcher


More in:

Comments [18]

David Hodes from Dobbs Ferry, NY

Perhaps the opera would seem less tolerant of terrorist activity if it were titled to reflect the act it depicts, viz., "The Murder of Klinghoffer." Any objections Mssrs. Gelb and Adams?

Jun. 30 2014 06:36 PM
Heath from NYC

How would all of you shocked by the controversy feel if an opera was written about the terrorists in the 9/11 hijackings, with action unfolding onstage and strong, inspiring choruses speaking of the evils of America; the type of strong music that sweeps one away and perhaps gets one thinking that there just might have been a justification for the attacks. Or perhaps with the KKK. This is no different.

Jun. 30 2014 03:31 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

"TO BE OR NOT TO BE" letting the terrorists spout their hatred and scorn as realistically one should expect from idealogues whom no amount of discussion would dissuade them from uttering their true beliefs is a lost cause.
Judge everything and everyone by their actions rather than their "spin." CIVILIZATION takes a giant step backward when one cannot trust in their own articulation of grievances, real or imagined, to strike out at cultural institutions or any non-combative force. Observe the discontent, HORROR, of the world situation where lives and property are dismissed as necessary collateral damage to achieve an end, a goal, benefitting only the aggressor. Everyone deserves to be heard no matter how outrageous to others that person's comments are, but violence and destruction should not become the trigger happy preemptive "reasoning judgment" allowable by society. One can only hope that logic and society's rebuke to hatred provoked vandalism will ultimately prevail. It will be a better world for all of us if common sense takes hold.

Jun. 29 2014 09:13 PM
Glen Boisseau Becker from Harmony, Florida

I saw "The Death of Klinghoffer" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and again when the film version appeared on cable television. Personally, I found "Nixon in China" far more offensive (it emerged as a pointless sort of political cartoon, whitewashing and trivializing both Nixon and Mao, among other monstrous characters from recent history). For some of us, however, the real question has less to do with politics or point of view than with artistic merit. While I enjoy Adams's music, for the life of me I can't see Goodman's libretti through the eyes of those who--in another WQXR thread--describe the Klinghoffer opera as "brilliant poetry" and "a masterpiece." Where is the emotional or intellectual value of a piece that culminates with a soprano, alone on stage, singing operatically: "I would spit at you, but I have no spit left; / I have no spit left, and no tears"? Seriously? Is this a work of art, or is it amateur night? -- I wish the Met had bypassed this drivel in favor of a work like Stewart Wallace's opera "Harvey Milk," which for me was a life-changing lesson in tolerance. No, more than tolerance: acceptance and respect for people who are all too often victimized.

Jun. 28 2014 07:42 AM

Hmmm. "The dialogue ramped up again when the Met cancelled its HD broadcasts, citing fears ... that it could incite global anti-Semitism."

So, the mere thought that it "could [possibly]" incite anti-Semitism is reason enough to cancel broadcasts (but not performances)? I'm seeing two faces of the MET here.


Jun. 28 2014 12:34 AM
A.C. Douglas from New Jersey

Frank from UWS wrote: "And Wagner did make works about Jews: Ever hear of Die Meistersinger?"

WQXR's Comment Section TOS prohibits my responding to the above bit of preposterous rubbish in the only way it deserves to be responded to.


Jun. 27 2014 08:29 PM
Jane A. from New York

One more question: Susan, why was your comment taken word for word from an article by Eve Epstein? Please see link below:

Jun. 27 2014 02:20 PM

Thank you to commenter for the correction on our photo credit. It's been updated.

A general reminder for everyone to please note our comments policy below: Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief. Thanks!

Jun. 27 2014 02:06 PM
Frank from UWS

Angela's comment is misinformed. On the Transmigration of Souls was a very powerful and sensitive work - and it won a Pulitzer Prize.

And Wagner did make works about Jews: Ever hear of Die Meistersinger?

Jun. 27 2014 01:53 PM
Jane A. from New York

Angela - I don't understand your comment. I went to the premiere of On The Transmigration of Souls, Adams's piece about 9/11, and found in incredibly moving. And I say that as someone whose partner was downtown on that terrible day. Can you give me a specific example from Transmigration that shows the romanticizing of terrorists?

Jun. 27 2014 01:50 PM
angela brown from new york

when John Adams makes an opera about 9/11 and humanizes the terrorists that did the abominable deed, I would like to see how the very tolerant and outraged ones who complained about its cancellation above, respond. I am sure very differently. Wagner did not make an opera regarding the jewish people no matter how antisemitic he was. Let's face it, the subject of the opera is in very bad taste and insensitive the victims. ANd Peter Gelb in my opinion is a man of integrity and courage. To the people above, I can only say, "go get a life" ,your rumblings only proves the point for concellation.

Jun. 27 2014 12:37 PM
Harry O

I'm 73 years old and a lifelong Saturday broadcast listener. I'm shocked that this kind of cencorship is actually happening here in the United States. I want to hear this opera and I don't want any individual or
group telling me I can't! Mr. Gelb, you're making a terrible mistake.

Jun. 27 2014 12:12 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Concetta, you are exactly correct.
Enough already!

Jun. 27 2014 11:04 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I believe it is time for QXR to let this poor invalid rest in peace. QXR is starting to remind me of hyenas feasting on a kill.

Jun. 27 2014 10:20 AM
Judith Levine from NJ

I'm so glad I got to see The Ring in HD before these groups decided to ban Wagner.

Jun. 27 2014 09:24 AM
Bernie from UWS

"The people who have only reacted very superficially to the opera have been very loud. There has been a lot of misinformation. It's very easy to drum up outrage these days."

Case in point: the previous two commenters on this page (neither of whom, I'd wager, have seen the opera).

Jun. 27 2014 07:00 AM
Susan Marx from New Jersey

In The Death of Klinghoffer, propaganda masquerades as artistic expression. This so-called musical masterpiece flirts with incitement to violence and traffics in hate speech, while terrorism is romanticized. An alarm must be sounded loudly and clearly enough to pierce all moral obfuscation.
Met Opera sponsors such as Bloomberg, the Toll Brothers, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Neubauer Family Foundation, should not wish to be associated with such a morally bankrupt production.
And countless Met subscribers may wish to ask Mr. Gelb one more question: What can we expect at the Met as an encore? An operatic rendering of The Beheading of Daniel Pearl?

Jun. 26 2014 11:41 PM
Stephen Victor from Pennsylvania

WQXR would be far better off it would just let this die. By constantly harping at it, it is only making more enemies and turning off future donors.

I've said it before and I will say it again. It is not sufficient to merely cancel the broadcast and simulcast. The entire production should be cancelled.

Jun. 26 2014 05:55 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.


About Conducting Business

WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

subscribe to Conducting Business

Listen to Stitcher