The audience coming to see John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer on Monday, October 20th, had to pass through a cordon of angry protesters crying “shame” and holding placards condemning the Metropolitan Opera of rather far fetched things like “taking terrorist $$$” or “glorifying terrorism.” They must not have succeeded in shaming anyone as the house was full. The few hecklers in the audience had their attempts at booing drowned in vigorous applause. The reviews that followed ranged from enthusiastic – “Met Opera’s ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ is a compassionate feat” (Mark Swed, LA Times) – to mildly positive, but none of them came close to confirming the extraordinary claims of those who protested without having ever seen the work.
Protests are just as protected, of course, as the right of cultural institutions to present work that some do not want to see produced. Attending the performance and seeing the protests was seeing free speech in action – people who wanted to express their anger were able to do so and those who wanted to see the opera and didn’t agree that an attempt to understand a tragic historical event meant supporting terrorism, saw it.
All good, but for the decision Peter Gelb made a few months ago to cancel live screenings. Now those that want to see what all the controversy is about, but cannot attend one of the eight live performances, cannot do so. Worse, as we predicted in our joint statement opposing the cancellations, the compromise decision to go ahead with the production, but cancel HD live screenings failed to appease those who did not want the opera presented. The cancellation was a no-win useless compromise.
Joint Statement on the Metropolitan Opera’s
Decision to Cancel “Death of Klinghoffer”
International Live Screenings
National Coalition Against Censorship; Article 19; The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund; European Council of Artists; Free Expression Policy Project; freeDimensional; Freemuse; International Committee for Artists’ Freedom, National Opera Association, Observatoire de la liberté de création, Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (Observatory for Creative Freedom, Human Rights League); PEN American Center
June 19, 2014
As national and international organizations committed to the right to artistic freedom of expression and an open exchange of ideas, we are deeply concerned about the Metropolitan Opera’s cancellation of more than 2000 HD live screenings of John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, in 65 countries. We urge the Metropolitan and its director, Peter Gelb, to reconsider and proceed with the scheduled screenings.
Artistic interpretation of the complexity of contemporary events always carries the potential of stirring controversy, but it also has the ability to enhance understanding of polarizing issues. Cultural institutions can play a crucial role in promoting understanding and peaceful dialogue in a world of conflict, but only if they stand up to pressure groups from all sides. If they don’t, they are likely to become either irrelevant or a tool in the hands of competing political interests.
The Death of Klinghoffer, written in 1991 and based on real events, addresses political issues which remain as urgent today as they were at the time of its writing: terrorism and conflict in the Middle East. The opera has been subject to controversy many times with attacks coming from both Jewish and Palestinian organizations, each side claiming that The Death of Klinghoffer was biased against it.
It is not surprising that interest groups put pressure on the Metropolitan Opera for hosting a work that, by acknowledging the humanity of the terrorists as well as of their victims, shows political conflict in shades of grey rather than as a stark opposition between good and evil. However, for a globally leading cultural institution like Metropolitan Opera, to bend to such pressure is ill-considered and counterproductive.
The compromise decision to go ahead with the production, but cancel HD live screenings is unlikely to appease those who do not want the opera presented at all, and it will discredit both the Metropolitan Opera and US cultural institutions in general in the eyes of audiences worldwide. By agreeing to suppress the distribution of one politically controversial work, the Metropolitan exposes itself to future requests to suppress others, whether the Ring Cycle or Die Meistersinger by Wagner, or The Merchant of Venice.
As a leading cultural institution in a country that proudly upholds principles of free speech, the Metropolitan Opera should demonstrate respect for the freedom of creative artists as well as for the maturity of its worldwide audiences, who can surely be trusted with a challenging artistic work. Art helps us all transcend easy right/wrong certainties, creates empathy, challenges the status quo and offers an understanding of why and how people do unconscionable acts – thus pointing the way to a world where such acts would no longer happen. But to do that, art needs the full commitment and staunch support of cultural institutions.