Passionately Resisting Censorship

The Metropolitan Opera describes the audience for its Live in HD broadcasts as a passionate global community. Though this use of the term passionate seems to be yet another instance of its devaluation, this week’s announcement of the cancelling of next fall’s Live in HD broadcast of The Death of Klinghoffer may indeed arouse the passions of that community. I count myself a member of that community and had planned to attend that broadcast.

The Death of Klinghoffer has been criticized by Klinghoffer’s daughters Lisa and Ilsa as a rationalization of terrorism and false moral equivalencies. Others in the Jewish community, for example Jonathan Tobin on the Commentary blog and Eve Epstein on the blog of The American Interest, a Conservative magazine, have echoed this view. Epstein is particularly scathing, calling it a “rhapsody to terrorism,” zeroing in on an aria by one of the terrorists that she claims “echoes the views of Der Sturmer, Julius Streicher’s Nazi newspaper, without a hint of irony or condemnation.” Those holding these views wanted the opera suppressed entirely.

The Anti-Defamation League took up the cause of these critics even though it concluded in its press release of June 17 that “the opera itself is not anti-Semitic.” The compromise brokered by the ADL involved including a statement from the Klinghoffer daughters in the program for live performances at the Met and cancelling the global broadcast because “there is concern that the opera could be used in foreign countries as a means to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism.” In other words, it left the Live in HD audience, both in the US and overseas, out in the cold.

In justifying this decision to composer John Adams, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb referred to “unimaginable pressure” to cancel the work. Given the Met’s difficult financial situation and increased reliance on donations (the subject of a full-page ad in the New York Times that appeared on June 20), it appears very likely that Mr. Gelb was referring to threats to withhold donations.

As a member of the passionate global community being denied an opportunity to see The Death of Klinghoffer I have several reactions.

Say that John Adams, or anyone else, had written an opera that included as its libretto text from purely anti-Semitic tracts such as Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or Die Sturmer. I would not support producing or broadcasting it.

Most of the discussion of The Death of Klinghoffer concludes that it is not an expression of thoroughgoing anti-Semitism, but rather is a serious attempt to deal with the issues involved in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The ADL’s statement that the opera itself is not anti-Semitic seems to me consistent with that judgment. New Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini, who has seen the opera, described it in his column of June 21 as “a raw brooding work that in its brutal honesty provides a kind of tragic consolation.” Similarly, The New York Times editorial on June 20 criticizing the cancellation of the global broadcast argues that “the opera gives voice to all sides in this terrible murder, but does not offer resolutions.”

Unlike, say, The Merchant of Venice, The Death of Klinghoffer is not in the public domain, and I would like to have seen it performed to evaluate it and draw my own conclusions. I don’t want the Klinghoffer daughters, Eve Epstein, Jonathan Tobin, or the ADL preventing me from doing that.

One possibility would be for John Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman to make the libretto available on Adams’s website. It seems to me that this does not constitute making his intellectual property available for free, since the opera’s intellectual property includes both music and production. Making the libretto available would at least initiate a discussion of how the opera treats the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a discussion that critics in the Jewish community are so determined to suppress.

To conclude, yes I am passionate about freedom of expression, and yes I believe Adams’s opera should be protected by First Amendment values of free expression, not just in the United States, but globally.



  1. This is not an issue of censorship; it is an issue of choices. Hundred of new American operas are waiting to be staged and Gelb has made a poor choice with Klinghoffer. No one is arguing that the government should ban this opera. Adams is free to write whatever he wishes but the Met should not be a platform for the glorification of terrorism. This would be the third Adams opera staged in seven years and, having heard the opera and studied the libretto, I can say it is mediocre
    at best. It is ridiculous to blame the Jewish community (which is hardly a monolith) for trying to suppress political Adam’s views, which anyone can read in his memoir, Hallelujah Junction.

  2. To Prof. Borins: the decision by the Met’s management to perform the “Klinghoffer” without “Live in HD” transmission – in other words, to treat it exactly the same way as they do the majority of their productions – does not in any way shape or form constitute censorship, by any reasonable definition.

  3. No one is preventing you from buying the CD which includes the libretto or watching the Penny Wolcott movie rendition of the opera sod you can decide for yourself. It’s quite a different matter when the iconic Met decided to give a platform to for Adam’s propaganda. It’s our tax dollars and patronage that keeps Gelb in business. This is an issue of choices and judgment NOT artistic freedom!

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