Monday, September 29, 2014

Why I’m Protesting The Death of Klinghoffer

The Metropolitan Opera is mounting a production this fall that was last seen in New York in 1991. Written by John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer tells the tale of the hijacking of a cruise ship by a team of Palestinian terrorists, and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger at their hands.

Obviously, given its subject matter, the opera has become the center of a bitter controversy. Last week, on opening night at the Met, a squad of 300 protesters gathered in Lincoln Square with picket signs and bullhorns. The charges: Klinghoffer glorifies terrorism, it puts the Jewish victims on the same—if not lower—grounds as their murderers, and it is insensitive to the memory of Klinghoffer himself, whose family resents the appropriation of his death to make lefty art.

These charges might be true; I don’t know enough to judge. Let’s say they’re not. I’m still going to grab my bullhorn and incendiary sign, and join the protest more enthusiastically than the most committed member of the Anti-Defamation League. This is reason enough: The Death of Klinghoffer is terrible art.

Before I make that point, let me show you the context that I’m judging it in. The following is an excerpt from Così fan tutte, Mozart’s opera about the fickleness of love. The plot is preposterous and thin, but the music and poetry are straight from the mouths of the seraphim:

Mozart does something extraordinary here. We’re in the middle of a childish deception: Fiordiligi has been seduced by a stranger from Albania, unaware that he’s in fact the disguised best friend of her fiancé. Surging over this comical affair, though, is a heavenly harmony that can set the heart of a mortal on fire. As a wise Youtube commenter on this clip says, 

tennesseelvr Apr 13, 2010
the musical master of the “feeling intellect” Mozart; unparalleled genius of the heart and soul; God s gift in this chaotic existence!

Let me give another example, this time from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Wolfram von Eschenbach is locked in a singing competition with Tannhäuser, a man who has spent an aeon in the Venusberg. There, he enjoyed all the carnal delights of the gods, and was so saturated by delight that the pale world has no savor for him anymore. Wolfram sings beautifully about the chaste evening star, charming the audience with his tranquil contemplation of beauty. But Tannhäuser, who has scaled to the heavens, has known the evening star (both intellectually and Biblically), and cannot keep himself within decent bounds when he hears it mentioned. Breaking into a wild song to love, he shocks the proper society around him.

This and the previous excerpt are examples of the heights that the opera can take us to. There is nothing under the sun that so unvaryingly leads us heavenward. In that sense, as the sage above said, it’s the closest thing we have to a gift from the gods. And that’s the standard that I judge Klinghoffer by.

At this point, you might remember what you know about Wagner: he was a vicious anti-Semite, right? He was indeed, down to the bone. But since aesthetics are a different ballgame from morality, that didn’t detract in the slightest from his ability to write music of throbbing beauty.

This might be a good time—if there ever is one—for me mention that I am a moderate fan of fascist art. Much more than most others in the twentieth century, the Nazis and their fellows in Italy understood the way to make a person thrill with aesthetic excitement. On the streets of Rome, the temples put up by Mussolini with their white columns and Latin inscriptions are finer than any of the faceless office buildings built in the 50s. And as I walked this summer in the ruins of the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg, mingled with my dumb horror at history was a strong sense that Hitler knew how to build something that was really impressive. The same is true in music: Carl Orff’s work is much more beautiful—and thrilling—than Schoenberg’s, the Jew whose music was thrown out of the Third Reich. The fierce reactionary movement that took place in visual art, meanwhile, was a vast improvement over the surreal daubings of the Weimar Republic.

This is all meant to convince you that I have no trouble whatsoever with anti-Semites making art, or even with anti-Semitic art at all. As I write that, it strikes me that I don’t believe it entirely: my disgust and horror for anti-Semitism itself often bleeds into aesthetic intolerance for anti-Semitic art. But only sometimes; and what’s more, there’s nothing morally virtuous whatsoever in finding the art of evidoers ugly.

This, meanwhile, is an artistic sin that I will never forgive:

Note the utter absence of hummable melody, the ragged, unrhyming English libretto, the clanging, unmelodic orchestral lines, and the pounding insistence on political significance at the complete expense of artistic craft. The last of those faults is perhaps the most grave. Lorenzo da Ponte, when writing the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro, explicitly removed anti-aristocratic references from his source text in order to keep the focus on the art. Let that be a lesson to us and to all our children.

I’m obviously not saying that the Death of Klinghoffer is anywhere near as bad as the death of Klinghoffer. That’s apples to rambutans. In this case, though, my wrath might have some effect in preventing it from happening. Ironically, though perhaps fittingly, the Met has already agreed to replace worldwide broadcasts of Klinghoffer with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is as rollickingly anti-Semitic as the opera gets. Nothing this summer has pleased me more.

[Edit: It’s been pointed out to me that this is wrong: it’s going to be Rossini’s Barber of Seville, not Die Meistersinger. This is even better news: it lets us leave this ugly debate behind, and it’s more melodic to boot.]


Paul Schwarz said...

Klinghoffer was not on our series this year, but I got tickets. I have read the composer's words. I respect Gelb and Levine's judgment. I want to make my own judgment. On the other hand, Meistersinger IS on our series, and I will trade it for another opera. I have seen it, and yes, it is openly anti-semitic. I expect there will be no protests, however.

Dabrowski said...

You are such a middlebrow philistine (pardon the etymology) that it is not worth engaging with your broader "argument," but I will point out that you can't even get your facts straight: Meistersinger was on the Met's list for HDs all along; they replaced Klinghoffer with another insipid iteration of The Barber of Seville.

Jonathan S Nathan said...

Thank you for the correction! I'm an even bigger fan of Rossini than Wagner.

I'm also flattered to be called a Philistine. We had a very fine temple, mind you, until Samson pulled it down.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Dabrowski (although not the dickish parts). It seems that you do not like any second Viennese school, which is fine. But is that really a reason to protest Klinghoffer? Personally, I hate Puccini, but I would never protest Tosca. Nevertheless, what really irks me about this post is the reliance on Kantian aesthetics as a valid basis to judge art. I mean jesus dude, enter the 21st century. If you are continually judging art based on the writing of a man who died more than two hundred years ago, you have probably got a problem. Look, when going to a play it might be helpful for me to think about Aristotle's poetics. Yet, I would never go to a play by Brecht and continually compare it to what I learned in Poetics. That would be absurd and so is this analysis. This was too long, sorry!

Jonathan S Nathan said...

I'm not quite sure what your specific criticism is, besides your hypothesis that I read a book that happened to be published in the 18th century.

But I'll give a stab at an answer anyway: as for my judgments of what's beautiful, I make them by my heartrate alone, not any philosophy. And as for my views on the connection of ethics and aesthetics, I'd love to discuss the question further—but what's your specific objection?

Finally, to your first point, bad art in a world that's capable of Mozart and Bach is such a scandal that I'm willing to stand athwart history yelling "Ecch."