The Perennial Klinghoffer Controversy

John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer is, I believe, his strongest opera. It was controversial when first performed in 1991, but has been produced several times since without much fuss, including at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2011. Opera Theatre went to great pains to contextualize the opera–which dramatizes the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, and the murder of an elderly and disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer–when they staged it three years ago, including working with the local Holocaust Museum and other community partners. Now the Metropolitan Opera is preparing to stage it in October, and it seems we’re right back where we started. Critics, some legitimately worried about whether the opera will inflame anti-Semitism, others simply irresponsible and vicious, have been hammering the Met for weeks now.

Anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, and there have been horrible incidents, including murders in Belgium directly attributable to the resurgence of this abominable bigotry. Over the weekend, I spoke with a French journalist who is Jewish, who recounted anti-Semitic thugs outside a synagogue in her neighborhood chanting the most terrifying filth and threats. It is appalling to think that odious figures like Dieudonné are gaining an audience, and mainstream sympathy, and that the National Front is seriously in political contention. Americans shouldn’t take any of this lightly.

But Adams’ opera isn’t anti-Semitic. Nor is it anti-Israel. In an Opera News piece recently posted online, I make a case for it being a complex work of art about anger, and about how we must learn to be distracted from our anger, or we will become lost in it and to it. Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman accomplished something extraordinary in Klinghoffer that has absolutely withstood the test of time and is, for obvious reasons, needed more now than ever. 

It isn’t worth arguing with people like Andrea Peyser, who defamed the work in The New York Post. She quotes lyrics out of context, seemingly unaware that in drama bad people will say bad things. This doesn’t mean the composer or librettist endorses those sentiments. It’s silly beyond measure to think so, and silly of course to argue with any who makes that mistake. But her piece does violence to art, a willful, ignorant sort of violence. There are far worse forms of violence to be sure. But watching someone tear something apart and hold up the pieces to scorn… well, that’s ugly. And the world has had a surfeit of ugliness. 

Yes, the opera is also about ugliness. But it offers a way out.

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From the Style blog

A lot more of what I write these days is shorter, and appearing on the Washington Post’s Style blog. Here’s a sampling from last week.

It was good news indeed to learn that the city of Washington will let art collector and entrepreneur Dani Levinas use the vacant Franklin School as a kunsthalle, to be known as the Institute for Contemporary Expression.

This little bit of contemporary expression, a statue of near-naked man on the campus of Wellesley College, sparked some thoughts about the gender norms we place on older men.

To accompany a review of the American Cool exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, I published a transcript of some of the conversation I had with the curators, who explained how they determined who was in, and who was not.

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman made me wonder about the might-have-beens, especially all the ways in which he might have influenced writers inspired by his talent.

And I turned to the subject of dogs twice: Considering the fate of what may be an American combat dog held hostage in Afghanistan, and all those puppies George Clooney saves in the execrable abomination of movie The Monuments Men. Which, by the way, I really hated.

I also had a nice chat with Mark Yoffe, head of the Counterculture Archives at George Washington University, about Sochi Olympics protest art. 

Finally, more good news: Natural Bridge in Virginia, beloved of Jefferson and painted by Frederic Edwin Church, will become a state park. Now let’s hope they don’t charge admission.

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Bartok’s Six String Quartets

I had to admire the Kennedy Center for staying open last month, when snow, wind and then bitter cold temperatures made it an adventure to get there. Two magnificent concerts by the Takacs String Quartet were sold out, but the weather depressed attendance. Too bad, because they were some of the best hours I’ve spent with live music in a long time. The program was Bartok, all six of his string quartets, played over two nights. I wrote up my response to the music for The New Republic, an article that was picked up by a few other sites, including Andrew Sullivan, which is a delightful bit of good luck for a music and art drudge. They chose to link to a dynamic performance by the Pacifica Quartet. Here’s another option, by the Alban Berg Quartet:

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Google Honors Harriet Tubman

Google is honoring Harriet Tubman today. In most images, especially on postage stamps, she appears as a sweet if rather haggard old woman, often with a wrap around her hair. Google uses a younger version, with the famous guide to the Underground Railroad holding a lantern. The image below, taken from a book, appeared in an exhibition of CIvil War era photographs and other images I reviewed at the National Potrait Gallery last year. Most images honor her accomplishment; this one depicts her resolve.

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Warm, but no spring

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It’s about 20 degrees warmer today than it has been for most of the week, but still not spring. And certainly not green.

 

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Benjamin Britten

The New Republic has posted an article I wrote about Benjamin Britten, based on last year’s 10oth annviersary celebrations of his birth. I’ve always been ambivalent about his music, loving some of it, indifferent to much of it. But I ended the year loving more of it, especially after making peace with what I call his fundamental tendency to smallness.

Every article about Britten has to deal with his erotic fixation on boys. Here’s how I grappled with that:

That particular psychosexual key may seem to unlock many Britten mysteries. In his biography, Powell devotes a few obligatory pages to unraveling the darker side of the composer’s years as a schoolboy, including the possibility that he was the victim of rape. These questions are not particularly relevant to Britten’s music, though they do explain many of the uses to which he put music, and some of the subjects that he felt needed elaboration through music. Decrying cruelty to innocent young men or boys was a prism through which Britten transcended his own inclinations to smallness. But that same smallness—the middle-class propriety that suffuses everything he wrote with occasional cathartic exceptions—was also a compensation mechanism for the frightening sexual allure of sadism and pederasty. The trope of sadism and innocence was both a form of protest and a heavily cathected nexus of desire that could not be contained within his immensely proper lifestyle. Spiritually and intellectually, the way out of his limitations was too terrifying a road to travel. Auden, a friend from early years and a collaborator on projects such as the operetta Paul Bunyan, seems to have noticed this, and said so, and the 
friendship was sundered.

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Joshua Bell and Hindemith at the NSO

                This weekend, the National Symphony Orchestra presents one of its more exciting programs of the season: A star soloist, Joshua Bell, in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, and Hindemith’s choral masterpiece, “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d.” I went primarily to hear the latter, a 1946 work written to mark the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and based on a poem by Walt Whitman that honored the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is subtitled “A Requiem ‘For those we love,’” and much of its power comes from the conflation of personal and epic loss, both in Whitman’s poem, and in Hindemith’s somber yet grand score, which must certainly have been a response to the devastation of World War II as well as Roosevelt’s demise.

          Given the honors heaped on it when it was new, and its lingering reputation as one of the great, neglected works of 20th-century choral music, it is remarkable that these are its first performances by the NSO.  I got to know the score a few years when researching an article on Hindemith’s unjustly neglected operas (seek out a fine DVD of Cardillac and a very good recording of his Harmony of the World, based on the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler). Digging into Hindemith at first felt like work, such is his reputation for diligence, craftsmanship and lack of imagination. But he is in fact an immensely rewarding and charismatic composer, and his imagination shouldn’t be slighted.

                “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d” isn’t a perfect piece, but its fundamental flaw is inextricable from its essential power. Hindemith’s choice of poem, a long, inexhaustible, meandering paean to life, death, nature and love, was both inspired and ridiculous. The sheer quantity of text, its volubility, its torrential repetitions and divagations, created enormous compositional challenges, and Hindemith responded with a fluid, almost incantatory line that expands and contracts as necessary, with hypnotic effect. The fitting of text within a free but regular metrical musical line is a wonder. But it also has the effect of distracting our attention from Whitman’s words, which just seem to keep coming. And that’s where the choice of the poem seems perhaps a bit willful, and wrongheaded.

                And yet the hour-long oratorio is filled with powerful episodes (the choral rendition of the seventh movement was a particular thrill) and it leaves one with a strongly visual sense of the poem: The darkened fields, the passage of the coffin through the landscape, the swamps and cityscapes, and finally “the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.” Worlds collide—Hindemith’s musical language steeped in the eclectic vocabularies of early 20th century European style, with a substantial concession to American popular taste, and Whitman’s 19th-century transcendental ecstasies, which reach mystical heights—and somehow, by the end, they cohere. A flawed, but thrilling piece.

                The soloists were mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and baritone Matthias Goerne,  the same team that sang the solo roles in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with the NSO two years ago. They are both powerful singers and both gave exceptional accounts of the musical line. But Goerne’s diction was almost indecipherable throughout. Hindemith doesn’t make it easy for the soloist, but Goerne didn’t rise to the occasion either. It was mush. And when the chorus, the Choral Arts Society which was in excellent form, is more easily understood than the lead soloist—well, that’s a problem.

                But one left grateful for the effort from all involved: NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach, who championed the piece, the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists. The piece deserves more hearings, and one hopes it won’t be another 70 years before the NSO programs it again.

                The concerto performance was more enthusiastically received by the audience. Bell plays with great rhythmic clarity and force, every note cleanly placed with a pulse that is relentlessly forward moving. The virtuosity is dazzling, the phrasing impeccable,  but sometimes it feels too well-suited to the current taste, the reigning cultural obsession with speed and breathlessness. I would have preferred a bit more air and reflection in the second movement, a bit more unhurried sweetness. But Bell has mastered the audience-friendly oratorical style that never allows the attention to wander, and it works for him. It clearly works for his fans, too. I’ll recuperate with Menuhin’s 1960 recording.

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