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Klinghoffer – uncovering the racist libel

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.


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  1. Young musicologist, not of the Taruskin persuasion says:

    There’s no sense in fighting fire with fire. I am in absolute agreement with the substance of this post, but I’m troubled by the ad hominem attack on Taruskin. Rather than substantiate your rebuttal of his case against “Klinghoffer,” you stoop lower than he does himself to discredit him. It’s unpersuasive and unattractive. Furthermore, Taruskin’s essay isn’t the origin of the smears on the opera; it’s the ultimate version of them, certainly, but no performances had taken place for 9 years when that essay was published, precisely because of the perception that it was pro-terrorist and anti-semitic.

    • Ad hominem? I hope not – that’s Taruskin’s line of attack vis-a-vis Volkov. My point is that Taruskin needs to admit error and withdraw his charge of antisemitism. No-one had used that term before. Taruskin crudely turned a cultural-political argument into an abusive bout of racialist sloganeering.

    • Neil McGowan, Prozrachny Theatre, Moscow says:

      Not at all. The public should be forewarned and forearmed concerning Taruskin’s viciously unpleasant personality and thuggish manner. Taruskin is notorious as a strong-arm bully who is well-known for orchestrating hate-campaigns against anyone who dares disagree with him.

  2. I’m afraid I have to disagree with you regarding Richard Taruskin’s piece in the New York Times. Here is a link to the 2001 article which you, oddly, fail to include:

    I suggest that anyone interested in the moral questions surrounding this opera read that article in its entirety. It is an excellent discussion of the intersection of music and politics that, far from being a “mendacious smear” against a particular opera, is rather a far-ranging analysis of the political control of music from Plato on, along with an examination of the particular way Palestinians and Jews are characterized–especially musically–in the opera. By way of example, here is a paragraph from Taruskin’s article:

    “In the ”St. Matthew Passion,” Bach accompanies the words of Jesus with an aureole of violins and violas that sets him off as numinous, the way a halo would do in a painting. There is a comparable effect in ”Klinghoffer”: long, quiet, drawn-out tones in the highest violin register (occasionally spelled by electronic synthesizers or high oboe tones). They recall not only the Bach ian aureole but also effects of limitless expanse in time or space, familiar from many Romantic scores. (An example is the beginning of Borodin’s ”In the Steppes of Central Asia.”) These numinous, ”timeless” tones accompany virtually all the utterances of the choral Palestinians or the terrorists, beginning with the opening chorus.”

    Some time ago I posted on this article and on John Adams’ riposte:

    One last word: it is passing strange to see Richard Taruskin, perhaps the only musicologist alive capable of writing the history of Western Music as a single great narrative in his Oxford History of Western Music, described as “flamboyant and combative” as if these were his fundamental traits! The only time I find Taruskin’s writing upsetting is when I discover that he is right and I am wrong.

    • Robert Fink says:

      Like any “combative” critic (and I’m sure he would happily embrace that adjective), Taruskin’s batting average is not one thousand percent; but neither is it, as Lebrecht implies, anywhere near zero. As a former student and general admirer of Taruskin’s work, I am dismayed at the nasty tone of the remarks about him.

      But, since Bryan Townsend brought it up, that quote (see above) from his NYT article is not one of Taruskin’s better moments. In fact, I was so amazed at its objective falseness that I wrote an entire musicological study to explain to myself how Taruskin could get such a basic musical fact wrong. In short: Taruskin indicts the music of “Klinghoffer” as being on the terrorists’ side, because it gives them, and not Leon Klinghoffer, the St. Matthew Passion “aureole” treatment. This is just not true, as even the quickest glance at the score will show. (Listen to the halo of strings and synthesizer playing over Klinghoffer’s last words in the opera, “I should have worn a hat.” QED.) Why did he miss this?

      As has been noted below in the comments, Taruskin was being influenced by a pattern of reception set by New York critics in 1991, critics who were almost all Jewish (Rothstein, Lipman, Wieseltier), and who were offended by the portrayal not of the Palestinians, but of the American Jews in the opera, shown in all their suburban middle-class glory. They couldn’t even hear the rest of the opera, because they were offended by an early scene in a New Jersey living room that was later cut from the opera

      For the whole story, see

      See also the take on l’affair Klinghoffer in a very penetrating piece about music after 9-11:

      Scherzinger, Martin. “Double Voices of Musical Censorship After 9/11.” In Music in the
      post-9/11 World Ed. Jonathan Ritter, J. Martin Daughtry. London: Routledge, 2007.

      • Since when have distinguished musicologists used the excuse that they were misled by journalistic opinion? That’s almost worth a chuckle. Would this raise uncomfortable questions about the field’s current standards?

      • @Robert Fink : Taruskin is also happy to make bigoted comments about a whole continent:

        ‘Is it unfair to discuss a version of the opera that has been withdrawn from publication and remains unrecorded? It would have been, except that Mr. Adams, throwing his own pie at the Boston Symphony in an interview published recently on the Web site, saw fit to point out that the opera “has never seemed particularly shocking to audiences in Europe.” He was playing the shame game, trying to make the Boston cancellation look provincial. But when one takes into account that the version European audiences saw in 1991 catered to so many of their favorite prejudices — anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti- bourgeois — the shame would seem rather to go the other way.’

        Imagine if he had made such a claim about African-Americans? Taruskin is happy to make stentorian moral pronouncements when they suit his own neo-conservative agenda, but also happy to publish a level of bigotry which exceeds even that of Donald Rumsfeld (at least Rumsfeld made a distinction between ‘Old Europe’ and ‘New Europe’).

        The issue is one of the prejudice and hatred of Richard Taruskin (as extreme as that of the most vicious anti-semite), not that of John Adams. And that’s coming from one who admires in many ways your article on Klinghoffer in many ways.

      • The Robert Fink/Papers reflects the most insightful reasoned approach to this story . One cannot of
        course say the same for Taruskin and fellow moralists – it all depends on whose ox is being gored . The
        Boston back down was one of cowardice , catering to what was perfectly stated in the Fink observation.
        It is all a matter as to how one wants to be perceived – the clever writers know this and caters to those
        who want to see themselves other than what they are , after all it’s what puts bread on the table .

  3. Mr Adams and Prof. Taruskin were not colleagues at the same institution. Taruskin teaches at the University of California, Berkeley (a public University) while Adams was a faculty member of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (a private Conservatory) from 1972 until 1984. So during the years that they were both teaching, they were safely separated by the waters of San Francisco Bay and tenured in two very different institutions.

  4. It is well, WELL documented that the anti-Semetic debate began around the 1991 Brooklyn production. The Klinghoffers’ comments from that are here if you can stand something from your “enemy.” In fact, an article by Robert Fink in the Cambridge Opera Journal, “‘Klinghoffer’ in Brooklyn Heights” (July, 2005) outlines all of this debate. Read it.

  5. Guilherme Fontão says:

    I don’t know the opera (as Mr. Lebrecht – who impartially didn’t find any kind of anti-semitism in it) and just something about Mr. Klinghoffer personal tragedy. In fact, how could be considered anti-semitic an opera if intends to show artistically the facts as they happened or the potential traumas involved? It could be nonsense to suppose that an artistic view of the dramatic ship hijacking and its tragic endpoint is a kind of anti-semitism by itself, especially whether the kidnappers were not Jews. Anyway, perhaps from the opera première will be possible to identify if really does exist a – fundamentalist – Jewish group intending to boycott it. Hope it be just a rumor and the opera can be evaluated by its merits.

  6. A Guardian interview with Alice Goodman, the Klinghoffer librettist:

    Quote: “It’s that whole process of dehumanising that I hate. To have made Klinghoffer into the Klinghoffer the critics wanted would have been to play into that enterprise of dehumanising – dehumanising your enemy, dehumanising your friends as well.”

  7. I have to agree with Will here and the link to the NY Times he provides does indeed make interesting reading as does the Guardian link provided by C.J above.

    Though as ever with arts, you’re bordering the potentially touchy subject of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Its defining where that line is used to offer an thought provoking piece of art and where it becomes a hate crime (extremes on both sides) and find the middle ground everyone is comfortable with. Usually with subjects as important as this, that middle ground is difficult if not impossible to find.

  8. This is all nonsense -the work should go on at all costs- and any disruptors kicked out of the house and
    arrested outright. We must not allow ourselves to become victims of the lunatic right or left or
    be victims of
    religious fanatics . The work is an artistic point of view and
    should be allowed to rise or sink by what the artist produces . That Mr, Taruskin does not like the opera is his problem ,to be guided by his ignorance in comparing painterly effects to musical effects speaks of stupidity.
    Mr. LeBrecht seems to think that either Mr.Taruskin, or Mr. Oesterreich , carry weight in the “arts world ” they
    do not however differently the Times may believe. They both are like the fly on the rump of a horse . If the
    opera is any good as an artistic work it will prevail long after the names Taruskin , Oesterreich are
    lost and unremembered flicked off by a tail into the dust bin of history .

  9. The interview in The Guardian with “Pastor” Goodman says it all. That woman’s bias is obvious. Sometimes things are black and white, as was the case with Klinghoffer, an innocent victim if ever there was one, but whom Goodman seems to think had it coming. I’m glad her musical career is ruined, and I don’ t think she was a very good librettist anyway.

    • I wonder how one could possibly interpret that into the Goodman interview.

      One more quote from the Guardian:

      But her libretto gave voice to his murderers’ motives. “Yes. It was suggested that I was making excuses for murder.” Which she wasn’t? “No, I don’t think there’s any excuse.”

      “Obvious bias”? “Had it coming”? Where did You read anything supporting such statements?

  10. There are sometimes serious problems with Taruskin’s work because he all too often couches his polemic in the guise of musicological objectivity. As a result, he often says things that are simply not true. Just one obvious example from the article by him linked above:

    “The same kind of pronouncements and policy directives emanated from the Soviets, nominally the Nazis’ enemies. “

    The Nazis killed about 27 million people in the Soviet Union. They were a wee bit more than “nominally” the Nazis’ enemies. And the murderous ideologies of Stalinism and National Socialism regarding the suppression of the arts also had important distinctions that no musicologist should overlook.

    Taruskin is a man of strong views and even passionate hatreds. As one might expect, this sometimes clouds his objectivity. Normally, this wouldn’t be such a problem, but musicology aspires to and claims the standards of scientific objectivity – a standard that Taruskin too often fails.
    In his analysis of the opera “Klinghofer,” Taruskin *deliberately* misleads by quoting the libretto out of the context of its dramatic irony. The words of a character portraying an anti-Semitic terrorist are quoted as if they were the views of the authors which is patently and obviously false.

    Taruskin has often expressed a justifiable contempt for the totalitarian abuses of art by Fascists and Communists, but with his analysis of “Klinghofer” he resorts to similar, heavy-handed, intellectual dishonesty that ends in a form of character assassination.

    He carefully says that any “control” of music should only come from within each individual’s own conscience, but at the same time he uses dishonest methods to thoroughly slander a work of art and has thus significantly contributed to its suppression. There are, on rare occasions, good reasons to suppress forms of expression, but when that suppression is based on widely disseminated, intellectual dishonesty that severely damages reputations such as Alice Goodman’s, it is a form of censorship.

  11. The point, Mr Lebrecht, is that while you might be completely accurate in your opinion of Mr Taruskin, using words such as combative and flamboyent weaken your otherwise commendable article. You don’t need these pejoratives. Trust yourself!

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