The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear sees blackmail, censorship, self-censorship and moral weakness –- NOT “compromise” – in the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to cancel the “Live in HD” broadcast of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” next fall. | June 24, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

It sure doesn’t seem like the Metropolitan Opera (below) could or should be the hero in this opera. More like it plays the role of the bad guy, the villain.

Met from stage over pit

Or is it really more of a soap opera?

In case you haven’t been following the news, the general director of the Metropolitan Opera Peter Gelb has caved in to pressure from Israeli lobbies and agreed to cancel the scheduled “Live in HD” broadcast of the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” by the acclaimed contemporary American composer John Adams (below and at bottom in a YouTube video with the stage director of the Met’s production.)

John Adams

 The Ear finds that action thoroughly reprehensible.

It seems the pro-Israeli lobby thinks the opera is anti-Semitic and too kind in the way it treats the four Palestinian terrorists — from the Palestine Liberation Organizations — who in 1985 took over the luxury cruise ship the Achille Lauro and killed the disabled Jewish passenger Leon Klingerhoffer in his wheelchair and then threw him overboard.

Well, I want to tell the head honchos at the famed Met: Don’t do my thinking about terrorism and Mideast peace for me. Just give me the facts and let me make up my own mind.

I want to see art, not propaganda, which is apparently what some pro-Israeli activists think would be good for the rest of us. I think I can see tragedy where there is tragedy, whether it is Jewish or Arab tragedy, Israeli or Palestinian tragedy. Just listen to the “Night Chorus” (below) and watch the videos that go with it:

This whole affair sound more than a little to my mind like a protester who would censor William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” or Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” in the name of a higher morality.

I say: Let us see the opera –- it is one of next season’s “Live in HD” satellite broadcasts that I would like most to attend -– and then decide for ourselves.

Stop condescending to us, stop underestimating us.

Now, one suspects that the poor finances of the Met would help to explain a lot of the shameful action. And Gelb admits that donors didn’t pressure him but that groups connected to donors did.

So here is the compromise: There will be no protesting at the actual opera production in New York City –- where tickets can run hundreds of dollars and seating is limited and most of the world cannot and will not see it — and no boycotting or withdrawing of financial support if the Met doesn’t broadcast it worldwide to a much larger audience.

I think I smell blackmail.

What do you smell?

I know I smell censorship on the part of the protesters and self-censorship of the part of the famed opera company’s administrators who caved in to their demands.

“The Death of Klinghoffer” would seem to build on the other news-based or reality-based operas of John Adams that the Met has staged and then broadcast so successfully by the Met: “Nixon in China” (below) about President Richard Nixon meeting Chairman Mao; and “Doctor Atomic,” about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the building of the first atomic bomb.

DeMainNixon Orth2

Here is a line to the story in The New York Times about the original decision:

And here is a link to reaction from the composer John Adams, who counters objections and make convincing points:

Here is a link to a fine critique from the longtime senior music critic for The New York Times Anthony Tommasini:

Here a link to a fine editorial that appeared in The Boston Globe:

And here is another great editorial, this one from The New York Times, which is located in a city known for its large Jewish population and, one presumes, its large body of Jewish subscribers:






  1. Art exists in the Marketplace of Ideas. A market buys and sells things. If an item is not offered for sale, buyers and sellers are affected.
    When an Idea is not offered to consumers, it is an economic, not an artistic or political decision. The economic pressure put to the Throats of the Met mngt. team was meant to remove the item from the marketplace. It was effective.
    When Greenpeace puts their tiny little boats in front of HUGE tankers, and container ships, to halt or bring attention to the contents being handled, the tactic is no different.
    We agree with one set of results, and disagree with the other, Perhaps….
    So, where is the moral hazard, in the process or the product? As long as free people with money and influence, and opinions that differ from one’s own are acting in the world, these kinds of situations will arise.
    For each one that makes you shout hurrah, there will be one, or more, that make you feel disappointed in humanity.
    The Met will do what it must do to survive. The opera will be put onto a DVD for all of us who wish to see and hear it. In this modern era of total communication of everything, be it nasty, uplifting, frivolous, evil, true, false, or merely commercial in nature, suppressing an idea at its source is no longer really practical.
    As we have seen, with just this blog article alone, blocking access to controversial material is the BEST way to insure that it will be seen by even more people than would have seen it otherwise.
    I am not a supporter of many of the actions of the State of Israel. I am not a supporter of many of the actions of my own country in the Middle East as well.
    The U.S. is the main, if not the sole, military prop for Israel against ALL of its neighbors.
    This opera will find its audience. If it does not do will be for reasons OTHER than the Met not broadcasting it. Would that have helped the opera’s distribution as a work of performance? Yes. Will it stop the thing from being seen? No. Will the opera make a difference in the larger picture of Middle East politics as a subject for drama? Of course not! It may even make enough waves so that MORE rather than less controversial subject matter will be used for creative endeavors, since this one is getting publicity. If the work has artistic merit beyond its subject, it will live. if not, then it will be consigned to the ash-heap of forgotten operas, like Salieri’s pieces, or Lully’s, or the music of lots of other composers from the long history of Western music.


    Comment by Michael BB — June 24, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    • I fail to see what the policies of Israel or the US State dept. have to do with throwing a crippled American Jew off a cruise ship to his death. Are we endorsing the concept of collective guilt here? It seems to be hard to eradicate this senseless idea; Jewish kids in NY City were still being beaten up during the 1950s by Catholic boys calling us “Christ-killers.” I similarly criticize people who blame every Muslim for the atrocities committed by others in the name of Islam. Imagine, if you will, an opera about a Zionist freedom fighter/terrorist during WWII, angry at the German extermination of European Jews, attacking a cruise ship in the Caribbean and throwing a disabled German-American from Wisconsin to his or her death? Hard to conceive that anyone would attend such an opera, isn’t it?


      Comment by Meyshe Sweet — June 24, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

      • Hi Meyshe,
        So you do not see any connection between what happened on the Achille Lauro and the state of Israel-Palestinian relations? Funny, I suspect many others, including composer John Adams and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — do see links, even though they completely both condemn the action that resulted.
        If you wish to isolate an inexcusably cruel act from any context, political or social or historical or whatever, that is your business and your choice.
        If you cannot conceive of someone attending the hypothetical opera you describe — which seems close to the book and film and rarity of “Ship of Fools” — that too is your business and your choice.
        But when you want to impose your point of view, when you want to force others not to follow their own desires to see a work of art and decide what points, if any, are being made and how valid they are, then it becomes the business of the society.
        If you don’t like the opera, or the novel, or the play, or the painting, then by all means avoid it.
        But please do not seek to impose your repulsion or analysis on my ability to see and hear something for myself.
        That is just a totalitarian impulse, worthy of a police state, kind of like Hitler’s use of the term “degenerate art.” He too was afraid of people making up their own minds.
        Of course, you should feel free to protest a performance or to argue or to educate people about your point of view and to try to persuade them about its correctness.
        But I do not think you are entitled to make up my mind, or anyone else’s, on the basis of your own opinion by endorsing censorship. It is nothing short of narrow-minded speech codes taken to a higher level.
        My guess is that we will have to agree to disagree.
        The big difference is that I do not want to limit your choices, while you would limit mine if you had your way.


        Comment by welltemperedear — June 24, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

  2. I am grateful for this post as I missed reading of it. The Southern Poverty Law Foundation publishes a Hate Map showing the location of extremists groups throughout the country. The map’s purpose is not to attack these groups because their opinions are different from mine, but to help me understand their thinking. If I can do this then maybe I have a chance to be heard by them and sway their thinking toward a more humane and tolerant way of living. Dialog reveals and heals. Censorship fuels ignorance and fear. It is slothful of the Met to choose the later. Thank you again for the post and your thoughtful and kind follow-up comment.


    Comment by Virginia Field — June 24, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    • Dear Virginia,
      Thank you for reading and replying in such details and with such intelligence.
      Your approach is absolutely the right one.
      Education, not censorship, is the correct moral and intellectual approach to take if you want to change someone’s thinking about a hot issue.
      Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arab — all are human beings with similar aspirations individually and collectively.
      One needs more understanding — even of one’s “enemies” and dissenters,
      I very much like the way you use your Hate Map, and I hope other readers listen to you, especially those who disagree with my point of view.
      Best wishes to you and the Center in its vital and much needed work.


      Comment by welltemperedear — June 24, 2014 @ 10:50 am

  3. Agreed. It’s reprehensible on the part of Peter Gelb and others in the Met administration, and it’s hardly a “compromise.” Thank you, Jake, for raising critical questions so articulately.


    Comment by Ginny Kruse — June 24, 2014 @ 8:59 am

  4. I’m disturbed by the blog’s strident allegations of Israeli, read Jewish, influence. The Met also chose not to broadcast “Wozzeck,” agruably an infinitely more important work, solely due to financial reasons; Berg’s challenging music is still considered too gnarly to attract big audiences. I saw the Met broadcast of “Dr. Atomic,” found it lacking in drama or interesting music, quite boring, and the theater was not packed. I don’t think there are crowds of people wanting to spend a summer afternoon watching an opera about some cowardly psychopaths killing a disabled middle-aged man who had done them no harm–sounds like a major buzzkill to me. Anyone wanting to experience this repellent work has only to buy the DVD, CD, or MP3.


    Comment by Meyshe Sweet — June 24, 2014 @ 2:21 am

    • Dear Meyshe Sweet,
      I am sorry that you are disturbed by the strident tone of the blog post. But that is how strongly I feel that I don’t want you or anyone else doing my thinking for me. I am perfectly capable of deciding what is repellent for myself.
      I don’t know if crowds of people would spend a FALL — not summer — afternoon watching this opera. I doubt that you know either.
      But the size of the crowd doesn’t really matter. Just put on the opera broadcast and let’s see.
      I fail to see what you are so afraid of.
      Do you not think that if the terrorists are “cowardly psychopaths,” it would be apparent to others.
      On the other hand, one side’s terrorist can be another side’s freedom fighter.
      If I recall correctly, some objective observers say that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have committed morally repulsive acts and even war crimes against the other side.
      But even that reality is beside the point when it comes to experiencing a work of art.
      Lots of operas — and lots of Shakespeare’s plays and Greek tragedies and modern European and American novels now deemed masterpieces — have morally repulsive characters or aspects. That doesn’t justify censorship.
      I am not just alleging influence — I am reporting on what the director of the Metropolitan Opera himself has said.
      So in the end, I would not force you to see the opera; and I do not want you or people like you forcing me NOT to see it in a local theater in a live performance, with behind-the-scenes glimpses, in the company of other viewers.
      Still, thank you for reading my blog and for replying so thoughtfully.
      I just wish you had more faith in the ability of others to think independently and to be morally responsible.
      Best wishes to you,


      Comment by welltemperedear — June 24, 2014 @ 8:13 am

  5. I totally agree. Nothing has made me angrier than the cancellation of this HD Live broadcast. I was delighted when I saw that this had been scheduled for the next season broadcasts. What a cowardly act to cave to critics who fully acknowledge that they haven’t actually even seen the opera!


    Comment by Pat Henson — June 24, 2014 @ 12:19 am

    • Dear Pat,
      Thank you for reading and replying with a strong and convincing point.
      And thank you for sharing my point of view.
      What you say is so true.
      I seem to recall some poll or story, perhaps even a personal anecdote I heard, that many, if not most, of the people who ask libraries to censor books or take them off the shelves and make them inaccessible to the public also confess that they have never read the book in question.
      That is generally how self-righteousness works, I think.
      Too bad for them, and too bad especially for us.
      That is how intellectual bullies accomplish their own brand of violence.
      My own conviction is that the answer to “bad” speech — or objectionable speech — is not silence but more speech.
      Let’s hope that the Met reverses the decision under a bigger public pressure to go ahead and broadcast the live production it now plans on staging for the selected few.
      Best to you,


      Comment by welltemperedear — June 24, 2014 @ 8:21 am

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