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Senior Correspondent

Keeping the Fat Lady Singing

“The Death of Klinghoffer,” which had its U.S. premiere in 1991 in San Francisco, is an opera that depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists who murdered an elderly and disabled American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer. The work is a controversial treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Joshua Kosman, the music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, took the argument further. In a piece, he asserted, the Met has produced a scandal “about an opera company’s unwillingness to back its own commitments.”

Kosman’s argument is with Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager. He blames Gelb for “caving in” to Jewish groups “and laying down a new marker for institutional cowardice” when he cancelled the planned live HD broadcast in November of John Adams’ opera about Klinghoffer.

The Met manager is letting the staged version go forward in New York. Only the broadcast which is beamed globally, “got the ax.” Kosman added, “The illogic of that distinction, silly as it is — apparently New Yorkers can handle material that’s too incendiary for other folks — pales beside the outright cravenness of Gelb’s decision…”

Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times’ critic, likes “Klinghoffer.” He describes it as “a raw, brooding work that in its brutal honesty provides a kind of tragic  consolation.” And adds, “For me, it is Mr. Adams’s musically richest opera, with a stronger score, overall, than those for ‘Nixon in China,’ and ‘Doctor Atomic.’”

Tommasini said: “Art can offer insight and consolation, yes. It can also challenge, baffle and incense us. This ‘Klinghoffer’ production could have been an invaluable teaching moment for the Met, and its audiences. Mr. Gelb could have assembled Middle East historians, religious leaders and the ‘Klinghoffer’ creative team to have a public dialogue. Culminating in the simulcast.”

The composer, John Adams, is quoted by Tommasini as having said in an interview that it’s “very hard when something’s been stained with an accusation” like anti-Semitism. It’s “almost impossible to wash it out.”

I have not seen the opera though I hope to do so one day, and make up my own mind. However when pros like Kosman and Tommasini write as they did — “attention must be paid” — as the playwright Arthur Miller said of his main character in “Death of a Salesman.”

While all this was playing out, another Met drama is playing offstage: labor troubles may delay the next season. In a front page story on Tuesday, The Times noted the controversy has nothing to do with the Middle East or artistic freedom. It’s about pay and benefits of the workers.

The opera company wants to cut them, warning of  falling ticket sales, smaller grants and contributions from donors which have accounted for more than $300 million a year, or nearly half the house budget. Gelb, the Met manager, said he has to cut labor costs if the Met is to survive, declaring, “No cuts means no Met.”

Historically, in order to survive, art has always had to pay attention to the people who can afford to keep the Fat Lady singing.

This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.

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