The More Things Stay The Same

In a recent Huffington Post article, Metropolitan Opera Director Peter Gelb responded to the accusations that John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer is an antisemitic work, and to the protests surrounding the opera’s inclusion in the Metropolitan Opera’s current season. In his brief essay, Gelb accuses many of those who describe Klinghoffer as antisemitic of being uninformed and ignorant of the production:

It would seem that most of those violently objecting to our presentation of Klinghoffer have no interest in knowing what the opera is really about. Without having read the complete libretto or ever having seen the opera, they nonetheless are quick to condemn it. For them, giving any voice to terrorism is a sin in itself.

Even though Adams’ opera will enjoy eight performances, the company did cancel the opera’s Live in HD broadcast, originally scheduled for November 15. Gelb, in a June 17, 2014 press release, stated that broadcasting the opera “would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”

The controversy of Klinghoffer reminds me of the issues surrounding Verdi’s La traviata, which experienced similar problems for its 1853 premiere in Venice. Verdi had hoped for his opera—whose title literally means “the woman gone astray”—to be staged in contemporary dress. The Venetian authorities disagreed and the setting of the opera was changed to 18th century Paris. Presumably, the censors in Venice felt that a modern, independent courtesan with a sexually transmitted disease was not appropriate.

The situation of The Death of Klinghoffer is different of course, but censorship is still at play. This time the pressure is not coming from government authority, but rather from portions of the public. What is the same however, is that an opera is being censored due to the sensibilities of the time. With La traviata, the staging and setting were censored, and with Klinghoffer the reach and distribution have been curtailed.

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