The Met could have learned from St. Louis experience

Larry Levin, CEO and Publisher of the Jewish Light. 

By Larry Levin

The Metropolitan Opera’s regrettable decision to cancel HD simulcasts of John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” has prompted criticism of the world-renowned institution.

Some have chastised the Met for pulling the simulcasts, citing free-speech and artistic-expression concerns. Others have ripped the company for scheduling the opera at all, claiming that Adams’ composition and Alice Goodman’s libretto create offensive and anti-Semitic justifications for an act of murder committed by Palestinian hijackers.

While I disagree with both the cancellation and the characterizations, I take the Met to task not only for its decision, but for not doing more. Way more. In fact, the Met has shirked one of its key responsibilities in this episode.

The Met is a leader in opera performance and education and, unlike many other companies with lesser resources and budgets, had an opportunity to advance art and discourse. It blew both big time.


The notion behind “Live in HD,” Saturday afternoon simulcasts to movie theaters, is that of promoting opera as an art form and engaging audiences that might not ever have the opportunity to see and hear the Met in their home roost at Lincoln Center.

What a teachable moment a “Klinghoffer” performance could have been for the satellite recipients! Imagine this:

• An introduction by Adams and Goodman, Met General Manager Peter Gelb or others about what the audience is about to see, why it has been controversial, and the importance of art in addressing critical social and political issues.

• Encouraging viewers to watch the opera and, when it’s done, right from their movie theater seats, texting or tweeting questions about it to the Met.

• A post-opera discussion in which experts not only discuss the opera’s significance but also field questions from the in-person audience and those sent in from remote viewers.

Of course, that’s just what could have been done the day of the show. For a more comprehensive, communitywide discussion, the Met needed only look as far as St. Louis, where a magnificent public education process took place over the year prior to the June 2011 “Klinghoffer” production by Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

The Jewish Community Relations Council and its Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations, OTSL and others – we were pleased to participate through our “Can We Talk” series – understood the delicacy of the issues surrounding Adams’ opera. But instead of playing duck and cover as the Met is, this community approached the issues through engagement and dialogue.

We’re not altogether sure what Gelb did or didn’t plan, but the almost-last-minute HD cancellation suggests not much. Operas are scheduled several years in advance, and the lead time would have been ample to build a cross-religion, cross-cultural platform through which the context of the opera could have been discussed openly and honestly.

It is not only fine, but encouraged, for Jews and others to have their own opinions about the opera, its meaning and impact. Those views could all have been raised and discussed in the context of a series of community events leading up to the performance.

A principal explanation we’re given by Gelb and the Anti-Defamation League about the cancellation was that showing the opera across the globe could be dangerous in a time of growing anti-Semitism.

I might at least understand this argument if it were coming from those strident voices who (quite wrongly, in my opinion) contend that the opera somehow justifies acts of terrorism or is anti-Semitic in spirit. They could at least suggest that widespread distribution promotes these values.

But for those who admittedly don’t take that position, like Gelb and the ADL, what’s the claim? That distribution would unintentionally promote stereotypes to those who misunderstand the opera? That risk exists with every article, book, film or piece of art depicting the Israeli-Palestinian turmoil.

If we’re now relegated to withholding art because of interpretations that might issue despite the creators’ assertions to the contrary, for fear of the repercussions that might ensue, what exactly do we have left? From an artistic perspective, not a whole heck of a lot.

The great irony of Gelb worrying about what might happen beyond New York is that he seemed to pay little attention to the lessons he could have learned from St. Louis. If he had taken more care, the current controversy, instead of focusing on cancellation, might have been woven into something far more constructive and teachable.