There was a warning of anti-opera demonstrations in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. Unnamed Jewish groups, apparently, are planning to picket or disrupt English National Opera’s forthcoming production of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. Really? The only protest threat cited in the article came from the seriously wacky Michael Jackson friend, Shmuley Boteach, a rabbi-without-a-flock who lives in America.
Nevertheless, some have reacted heatedly to this non-story, seeking parallels with last summer’s pro-Pal disruption of an Israel Philharmonic concert at the BBC Proms. It just shows how easily anything to do with the Middle East can be distorted.
I tried this weekend – in an essay for the JC, published in a Spanish version in El Pais – to examine the grounds for offence in this controversial opera. Two questions, I felt, needed to be asked: (1) is it anti-semitic? (2) is it insensitive towards the victim of a terror atrocity?
The second charge has substance. The daughters of the late Leon Klinghoffer object to the opera. They deserve a hearing at Lord Leveson’s inquiry into media standards. It is not just the press and broadcast media that trample on individual privacy; stage and screen do it, as well.
The anti-semitic allegation is, on the other hand, baseless. I have read every word and note of the opera and found nothing that promotes hatred of Jews or incites violence against them.
The origin of the anti-semitic libel is an essay written for the New York Times in 2001 by the flamboyant and combative musicologist Richard Taruskin, who likes nothing better than to make headlines. Taruskin’s assault on Adams was intended to create a fuss and kill the opera worldwide. It succeeded in the first half of its objective. At no point did it demonstrate how and why the opera might be anti-semitic. It was a wild smear, no more, no less.
Who is Taruskin? He’s a long-tentacled academic and a long-standing friend of the New York Times’s classical music editor, James Oesterreich, who allows him to use the paper as a pulpit for pet hates and personal feuds, notably on issues concerning Dmitri Shostakovich. Oesterreich, only last week, published a fawning article in which Taruskin is described, Stalin-style, as all-wise and all-knowing.
This is not the place to investigate cosy friendships at the New York Times.
However, damage has been done to a major work of art, The Death of Klinghoffer, and to an innocent artist, John Adams. It would be to Taruskin’s credit if he were to take this opportunity of the opera’s revival to apologise for his racist attack. The opera deserves to be judged on merit, not on a mendacious smear.
UPDATE: More here.