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John Adams speaks out on the pressure exerted against his opera

Composer John Adams with the U. S. Army Blues at a Library of Congress concert in 2013
Composer John Adams with the U. S. Army Blues at a Library of Congress concert in 2013
provided by the United States Army Band, from Wikimedia Commmons (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

By now I assume that most readers are familiar with the recent news about the planned Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams’ controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer. The story was not about whether or not the production would take place but about whether a performance would be given global broadcast as part of the Met’s Live in HD program. Writing an article for today’s edition of The New York Times, Michael Cooper summarized everything in his first sentence:

The Metropolitan Opera announced on Tuesday that it was canceling plans to simulcast John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” this fall to cinemas around the world, drawing praise from some Jewish groups who object to the opera, but laments from the work’s fans and a warning from its composer that the decision promotes “intolerance.”

Cooper has now written a follow-up article, which will appear in tomorrow’s print edition but is already up on the paper’s Web site. The significance of this second article is that it finally gives composer John Adams a say in the matter. Once again, the first sentence is significant:

John Adams said he learned that the Metropolitan Opera was scrapping plans to transmit his opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” to movie theaters around the world when the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, told him on Sunday by telephone that he had gotten “unimaginable pressure” from some Jewish groups that oppose the work.

The significance is that Adams was told after the fact, rather than consulted while Gelb was considering the matter. As we should reasonably assume, Adams has his own serious thoughts about this matter. What was really important about Cooper’s follow-up is that those thoughts have now been put on the record. He quotes Adams as follows:

I’m just afraid that most people will have a sort of Wikipedia opinion about this opera. They’ll say, “Oh, that’s the opera that’s been accused of anti-Semitism,” and leave it at that. And that’s really very sad — it’s very hard when something’s been stained with an accusation like that, it’s almost impossible to wash it out.

Adams’ reference to Wikipedia is particularly apposite. In fact, it goes back to October 17, 2005, when Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” on his television program The Colbert Report. The word received enough recognition to earn a definition on Wikipedia itself:

Truthiness is a quality characterizing a "truth" that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively "from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.

Now all of us make decisions “without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts;” so why should Gelb’s decision to make such a decision be so important? I would suggest that the decision was made out of fear of that “unimaginable pressure.” The whole situation boils down to a book that was very popular in my student days, Robert Ringer’s Winning Through Intimidation. At the end of the day, Gelb felt that the intimidation of “some Jewish groups that oppose the work” was more important than, for example, the PEN American Center, which has long associated every writer’s right to free speech.

Instead, Gelb chose to follow the advice of Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Mind you, Foxman never saw the opera; and, my guess is that he never took the trouble to read the libretto before being consulted on the matter. Basically, on the basis of reactions to past performances, he, in Cooper’s words, “feared how it might be received in a time of rising anti-Semitism abroad.” Sadly, the grounds for Foxman’s fears seem to reside in the effort that Alice Goodman’s libretto took to give voice to both Palestinians and Jews, which is why John Rockwell’s 2003 article about the opera for The New York Times described it as “not anti-American or antibourgeois or anti-Semitic but pro human.”

Intimidation works when “the loudest voice in the room” prevails. I use quote marks because that phrase happens to be the title of a recent book by Gabriel Sherman about how Fox News became what it is today through the efforts of Roger Ailes. In general those loud voices tend to ignore the performing arts under the assumption that they are too insignificant to make any difference. In this case, however, we have some loud voices that seem to have intimidated the Metropolitan Opera and relegated a major composer to the shadows. Adams has some very sensible things to say, but I doubt that he will be able to prevail over the current wave of truthiness.

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