Art Isn't Easy

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 20: Signs promote 'The Death of Klinghoffer' outside the Metropolitan Opera  at Lincoln Center on Octo
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 20: Signs promote 'The Death of Klinghoffer' outside the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center on October 20, 2014 in New York, NY. The opera, by John Adams, depicts the death of Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish cruise passenger from New York, who was killed and dumped overboard during a 1985 hijacking of of an Italian cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. The opera has been accused of anti-Semitism and, at its opening tonight, protestors, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, plan to protest its inclusion in this year's schedule at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo by Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)

With blogs posting almost daily about how opera is dying or dead, with even the head of the Metropolitan Opera, in a pre-strike negotiating tactic (that badly misfired) claiming, "Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form," I was over the moon with the all the attention given to the Met's production of The Death of Klinghoffer: articles on the front page of major newspapers across the country, world-wide television coverage, huge protests at the opening night. In an obviously bad choice of a cliché, I might say "Now that's good for the Jews!" Well, for the world of opera anyway.

I admit it: I am one of those who think any kind of publicity is good. And when was the last time an opera made the front page of The NY Times?

Understand that I also love when actors make political speeches on Award Shows. I believe that if you have an audience of a billion people, say something important. Don't thank your agent. I remember as a little kid the first time I heard the word Apartheid was when Stevie Wonder talked about it on the Grammy's.

Despite my enthusiasm for all things politically incorrect, I was completely surprised by my reaction to Klinghoffer.

I was invited to the dress rehearsal and arrived with certain pre-conceived notions. One was that it was going to be much less controversial than the protestors were saying because after all, it's "only an opera" and the protester fully admitted they had not seen the piece. Two, I believed I wouldn't much care for the music.

Wrong on both accounts. I was in shock! It was so much more political than I thought. In fact, even though I've spent thirty years seeing theater, I don't think I've every seen a production as political. And while it wasn't all that anti-Israel to me, it was incredibly pro-Palestinian. When the lead terrorist Molqi sings (underscored by desperate music), "We are not criminals and we are not vandals, but men of ideals," it is clear that the opera is asking for us to understand these men and sympathize. I won't soon forget the scene at the end of Act One where the Palestinians were singing against what I could only assume is the wall erected to keep Palestinian terrorists out of the county, and hundreds of projections of pro-Palestinian graffiti (and anti-Israel) kept bombarding the audience with slogan after slogan while enormous green flags waved and the chorus sang about "their" land at the top of their voices. This was the type of patriotic song that every country in the world has, a song of love of one's country, one's land, coupled the dream of never surrendering, with pulsating violins, trumpets blaring and timpani pounding. Very powerful stuff. But very one sided.

The composer and librettist of the opera were quoted as how the opera is fair and balanced, not really favoring one side or the other. Here's a rule: never, never, never believe what a composer or librettist tell the press. Listen to the music; that's where they reveal their true feelings.

To be clear, I am politically pro-Israel. I love the country and have conducted there many times. The pro-Palestinian politics of this opera did not make me feel any more sympathy for their cause. But I was thrilled to see this huge, emotional statement. For what is opera anyway but huge, over the top, emotional statements? Will it make the Zionists rethink the necessity for a Jewish state? No. Will it change the minds of people who believe a two-state situation is the only answer to the violence? No. Will it make both sides think, even the tiniest bit about the other side? Doubtful. But will it draw more attention the conflict that has existed in Israel for many, many years? Definitely. And that attention has been generated by a work of art, an opera. Good!

As for my other surprise, I loved the music. And that made me very happy. After all, no matter what anyone says or does, opera is about the music And this score is spectacular: choral writing to raise the rafters, incandescent and powerful arias, funny comic turns, and magnificently dense orchestral writing. Everything a great opera needs.

While I've enjoyed certain minimalist pieces, Adams's Slow Ride in a Fast Machine, and the Jerome Robbins and Philip Glass ballet, Glass Pieces, I've never enjoyed minimalist operas. Nixon in China gave me a headache and I left after the first act. I liked Adams's Doctor Atomic a bit better, but mainly because of the production and the cast, certainly not because of the score.

From the first notes of the "Palestinian Chorus," with its mysterious F-minor chords that shimmer like the desert sun, I was hooked. Yes, it had the minimalist underpinnings, but what caught my attention were the gorgeous melodies in the orchestra and in the choral writing. With the counter-point, the harmonies, the colors, the music felt more than contemporary; it felt ageless.

The musical building-up to the shooting was cataclysmic, almost unbearably spine tingling, like a minimalist Verdi. Mrs. Klinghoffer's final aria was a tour de force for the mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, so powerful it certainly added weight to Jewish side of the political scale. But not nearly enough for there to be anything resembling balance.

Sadly, I couldn't be at the opening to experience the event. I was at a fund- raiser where we spent the better part of our meal discussing this opera. A friend who had seen it before at BAM complained about a scene set in New Jersey where Jews bicker endlessly and loudly. I told him it had been cut. (Opera composers are certainly allowed to revise -- the original Madama Butterfly was a flop. I don't know why they revised Klinghoffer so I can't say if they had ceded to criticism or not.) Our dinner conversation got quite heated even venturing into a discussion of The Merchant of Venice and whether or not Shakespeare harbored anti-Semitic feelings or whether Shylock was an empathetic character. I thought, well that doesn't happen every day! Then as our main course was served, my cell phone started buzzing. I started to get blow-by-blow text messages from a friend who was at the Met: "Helicopters overhead!" "A protestor just interrupted the show." "Another Scream."

But the SMS I was most happy to receive was the last: "Huge standing ovation. The audience is going crazy!"

Metzuyan! (That's Hebrew, Google-translate it!)