antisemitism,  Freedom of Expression

Opening night of Klinghoffer faces protests and disruption

I’ve got a lot of sympathy for those who are protesting in New York because they consider The Death of Klinghoffer to be an opera which distorts politics and history, and find its depiction of Leon Klinghoffer exploitative.  People should of course be free to express such views about the Met’s production. Here’s Rudy Giuliani:

“The Met, and those who decide to go see this production, have every right to do so, and it would be hypocritical and anti-American for us to interfere with that and to stop that,” he said at the rally. “They have that right. But we also have a right, just as strong and just as compelling, to point out the historical inaccuracy and the historical damage this contributed to.”

But some want to go further than this and have the opera cancelled completely. (The plans for a simulcast were cancelled earlier this year.) According to the New York Times there have been threats against opera officials as well as online harassment of performers. Yesterday evening the opening night was disrupted by audience members who had to be ushered out – one was arrested.

Although disruption, rather than violence, was the order of the day, this was a disturbing perspective:

Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, who was the rally’s master of ceremonies, said he did not expect protesters to react inappropriately. “But you can’t be responsible when the Metropolitan Opera advocates terrorism and incites violence — you can’t know what will happen,” he said. “And anything that happens, that has besmirched this Metropolitan Opera, and besmirched Lincoln Center, is to be laid at the foot of Peter Gelb.”

The opera is rather subtler than Wiesenfeld suggests – and different people will take different things from it. Here’s a reminder of what Alex Ross, commenting on my 2012 post, thought about a performance he saw:

My personal response to the Palestinian choruses is that they are rather abstract and vulgar. They are espousing a brutal and manufactured mythology – not anything worthy of deep human empathy. Compare this, for example, to the very down-to-earth and humane portrayal of the Klinghoffers – Leon joking that he “should have worn a hat”, prior to his imminent execution, always reduces me to tears. They don’t necessarily get the most etheral music but they have a sense of simple dignity.

This, for me, is the point of the opera. Pompous ideologies set against areal person killed by thugs and the tragic aftermath of his murder.

The New York Times juxtaposes two opposed perspectives:

One protester at the rally, Hilary Barr, 55, a pediatric nurse from Westchester County, said she believed the opera made excuses for terrorism. “By putting this on a stage in the middle of Manhattan, the message is, ‘Go out, murder someone, be a terrorist and we’ll write a play about you,’ ” she said.

Some people held a counterdemonstration. James Saslow, 66, a professor of theater history at Queens College, had a sign: “A work of art about a subject is not a work in favor of that subject.”

Although Barr’s point is rather crude and over the top, Saslow’s placard completely fails to engage with people’s objections to the opera.  No one is saying that a work of art must endorse anything it depicts.  But it may do.  In fact Klinghoffer cannot be described as a work ‘in favour of’ terrorism – but it is still morally and politically problematic, perhaps all the more so for being subtler than many of its critics are suggesting.  But, particularly given America’s commitment to freedom of speech, trying to get the production cancelled doesn’t seem right.

Here’s a review of last night’s performance.