When was the last time an opera inspired noisy demonstrations on the ground and extreme bloviating in the media? Yet that’s what the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams and Alice Goodman’s powerful 1991 The Death Of Klinghoffer has prompted.
On Monday night, you can expect to hear about rabid protesters hollering across police barricades in front of the Met on the vast plaza at Lincoln Center. Their issue? This serious work of musical art has the audacity to give voice to a Palestinian point of view — in an opera that is unequivocal in its ultimate horror at the heartless murder by a terrorist gang of an innocent, elderly disabled Jew. As usual in such cases, much of the outcry and breast-beating will be led and populated by people who haven’t bothered to see the show that prompted all the fuss. Their moral hackles are all hot and bothered by talk about the work rather than the work itself. They know what they hate.
One of them is Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, ex-Federal prosecutor and sometime presidential candidate. This is a predicable stance for Giuliani, a pandering cultural ignoramus who once tried to use his position as mayor to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum because it was showing art he and his voter base didn’t like.
A far more problematic and depressing presence in the yahoo ranks is that of the prominent First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, an absolutist against censorship — except, apparently, when the subject offends him. Abrams’ argument, expressed in an ill-conceived and morally indefensible column in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, comes down to this:
Suppose the opera had been about a different murder and the Met offered an intense, two-sided operatic discussion of the desirability of the murder of, say, President Kennedy in a work called “The Death of JFK,” Abrams wrote. “Or a production about the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in which singers on the “side” of that assassination offer racist views in support of the murder. Or how about one on the death of one of the thousands of victims of the 9/11 attack that contained an extended operatic debate between her killers and herself about whether her death was justified.
Surely we recoil at all of these. They all would be protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment is basically—and gloriously—content-neutral. It protects not only enduring works of art but also the dregs of human imagination, ranging from films of animals being tortured and killed to the publication of “Mein Kampf.” But it is inconceivable that the Metropolitan Opera would have chosen to offer the public any of the operas I have just hypothesized.
Beware the word but. It is the poison pill of the absolutist. Swallow that but and you’re dead.
Floyd, meet Stephen Sondheim. Also William Shakespeare, maybe you’ve heard of him. Shakespeare gave empathetic voice to the noise in the heads of such jolly murderers as Othello and Richard III. Sweeney Todd composer-lyricist Sondheim, more specifically to Abrams’ point, wrote Assassins, a musical that set presidential murderers and murder-wannabes in a carnival arcade where they blame media, mommy and bad reviews — also poverty and prejudice — for their bloody actions. Some joke.
As Justice Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.” To which I would add, “… even at the risk of causing blindness.” That’s what artists do: Shed intense light in dark corners, sometimes at risk of starting a fire. The Met already has succumbed to outside pressure by canceling a planned telecast of The Death Of Klinghoffer, while admirably remaining steadfast about the performance itself.
Abrams writes, of the victim in this important opera, “His demise is not a proper subject of debate, only of mourning. And of how best to prevent future murderous attacks.” That’s a comment worthy of Rudy Giuliani. It’s not just nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense. Mr. Abrams, keep your “but” out of the arts.