J’accuse Peter Gelb

Met balcony

An open letter to the New York Metropolitan Opera general manager

Dear Mr. Gelb,

I am incredibly sad that The Metropolitan Opera has chosen to perform Alice Goodman and John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” and, worse, to simulcast it to 2,000 theaters in 66 countries where it can reach hundreds of thousands of people with its biased propaganda.

The opera justifies terrorism by its soft-focus potrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the Achilles Lauro cruise ship in 1985 and murdered the elderly disabled Jewish man, Leon Klinghoffer. It distorts the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and is marked by anti-Israel propaganda, misinformation, and anti-Semitic canards that are explicit in the libretto. As has been noted (http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=3&x_outlet=126&x_article=2721), the very title, “Death of Klinghoffer”, avoids the word “murder” and sets the tone for the euphemisms and fake moral equivalences that are so characteristic of political propaganda apologists for terror.

Great art provokes and disturbs too, and can be similarly amoral. The difference is that a great masterpiece is characterized by the ability to project the audience in multiple directions in a manner that is not explicit or expected. Great art can transcend the stated goals of the creator. The libretto and plot line of this opera do not reach the standard of great art. The Death of Klinghoffer harnesses great artistic skill with the explicit political propaganda goal to bring the audience to a simplistic political view of the ongoing Arab war against Israel. It fits into the same category as Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”; interesting for the historical record and artistically influential (being generous), but not worthy of the prominence of the world’s most important opera house.

I also want to distinguish crude propaganda from artistic interpretation. A couple of years ago, we sat through a performance of Aida at Glimmerglass that was clearly intended to be a commentary on the policies of George W. Bush, complete with an onstage portrayal of waterboarding. I was uncomfortable and it provoked me, but I certainly wouldn’t condemn it. I draw a distinction between being exposed to a particular interpretation, no matter how political or contrived, of an opera that is truly a great masterpiece, designed to transcend, and a work that from its conception is designed to lock the audience into a single political view. “The Death of Klinghoffer” relentlessly and explicitly hounds the audience towards the creator’s viewpoint of moral murkiness. This pseudo-sophistication provides a convenient vector for audiences to justify anti-Semitic biases.

This opera’s inflammatory bias is well-documented. At its 1991 performance in San Francisco, groups picketed; the Los Angeles Opera and the Glyndebourne Opera Festival cancelled scheduled performances despite the fact that they were among the co-commissioners of the work. After 9/11, performances were cancelled in Boston and elsewhere because of the opera’s sympathetic portrayal of terrorists. The daughters of Leon Klinghoffer have also expressed their outrage. Despite the guise of presenting different points of view, this opera spreads anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views. Opera is a synthesis of text, acting and music. If the text and storyline are false propaganda, it is difficult to understand how a Met performance is justified, no matter how exquisite the music may be.

I urge you to reconsider the decision to broadcast the opera worldwide. I also call on you to publish, in every program handed out at the Met and in the sheet given to each movie attendee, the statement issued by the daughters of Klinghoffer. This will help the audience to be aware that the “artistic masterpiece” is a straight-up serving of propaganda and will show respect to the feeling of the living victims:

“We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic. While we understand artistic license, when it so clearly favors one point of view it is biased. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew is both historically naive and appalling.”

There are terrific modern operas out there, I might humbly suggest that Harrison Birtwistle’s opera “Gawain” is truly a masterpiece and worthy of the Met’s attention. Attracting excitement through “controversy” is a classic publicity move. There is a long Western intellectual tradition of romanticizing or excusing “political murder” To paraphrase Orwell, this is “an idea so morally stupid that only the greatest of intellectuals could believe it”. The ideas promoted in this opera are not original, this is not great art but fancy window-dressing of tired clichés no different to the näive college student who sports a T-shirt of Che Guevara. The juvenile crassness of this piece tarnishes the reputation of the Met.

I am a loyal long-time opera attendee and supporter of the Met. No more, my hitherto passionate support of this institution is shattered. By making the decision to stage this opera you broke faith with me and your public.

J’accuse Peter Gelb. You push the institution of the Met over the red line of racism. With high art, you pour fuel over the fire that enables age-old blood libels against Jews to be cast in modern form. It is shocking and depressing to contemplate.



Met outside


4 thoughts on “J’accuse Peter Gelb

  1. Such a great letter. Shining light on the descending veil of darkness which is so upsetting to all people of goodwill.

    A distillation of the now acceptable antisemitism which has become so common in the once great cultural institutions. People, like Mr. Gelb who take pride in rejecting their own Western culture are never far way from embracing barbarism. Now in the post-modern world the cultural elites are sadly on the vanguard of that new barbarism.

    • Thanks so much! Although I knew the rough outline of the actual events, until this came up I did not know about how Regan had acted swiftly and decisively to ensure that the terrorists were arrested and put on trial. There are so many aspects of the event that could have been explored and which provide valuable lessons for the current time.

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