Howling protesters do not make good arts critics. Most public demonstrations against art oversimplify or misrepresent the thing the complainants find so offensive, and the current firestorm over the John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer is typical of the phenomenon.
New York's Metropolitan Opera announced plans to stage the controversial 1991 opera about the Achille Lauro hijacking several years ago, sharing a new co-production with the English National Opera. That company unveiled the production by British director Tom Morris without incident in London in 2012. Things, however, have turned out completely differently in New York. The opera is based on the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists in 1985 and their murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American Jewish passenger who used a wheelchair. Twenty-nine years after their father's death, Klinghoffer's two daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, still object vehemently to the piece.
You can understand they might wish never to see it or even hear about it – even if it does end with the character based on their mother singing a tragic aria about her husband's death – but their very public denunciation of it as something that glorifies terrorism has been taken up by others who picketed the Met at Monday's opening, decrying the opera as anti-Semitic propaganda. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a regular Met patron who was one of the more high-profile New Yorkers demonstrating against it this week, has a slightly more nuanced position: He wrote in The Daily Beast that he objected to the opera because he believes it romanticizes the Palestinian cause.
The Met might have thought it had dealt with all this already: In June, it responded to complaints from the Anti-Defamation League and intense pressure on its donors by cancelling plans to cinecast the opera as part of its Live in HD program that brings opera to hundreds of movie theatres around the world. It has also reprinted in the house program a statement from the Klinghoffer daughters explaining their position.
"We are strong supporters of the arts, and believe that theatre and music can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events. The Death of Klinghoffer does no such thing. It presents false moral equivalencies without context, and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father."
They go on to say: "Terrorism cannot be rationalized. It cannot be understood."
All of these complaints seem prey to some common fallacies about art that represents bad things: that to show something is necessarily to condone it, and that to give context or, as the Klinghoffers' statement calls it "back story," for an act is somehow to forgive it. Apparently, the Achille Lauro hijackers are only to be represented as the cackling villains of fairy tale – evil just because they are evil. Yet if we take the position that terrorism cannot ever be understood, we are unlikely ever to defeat it. Surely the rise of homegrown terrorists is proof of that.
That is one of the reasons we need art about terrorism, simply as part of our larger social discussion: Contrary to what the protesters seem to believe, singing an aria does not necessarily make you a hero, but it does force an audience to confront your point of view. Know your enemy, as they say.
The other reason we need art about topics as contemporary as terrorism is for the sake of the art itself. The operatic repertoire is stuffed with work by dead Europeans, the Toscas and Carmens that fill most opera houses; Adams is his country's best hope for a contemporary American operatic tradition. His 1987 work Nixon in China, staged at the Canadian Opera Company in 2011, is a fascinating take on the intersection of politics and image in Eastern and Western cultures that both exploits and undercuts opera's traditional ability to turn its subjects into symbols.
I was deeply impressed with it when I saw in 2011 and I would like to be able to judge whether The Death of Klinghoffer, which has received both positive and negative reviews from opera critics, achieves something similar for Klinghoffer and his killers, critiquing the very kind of image-making that the protesters are so certain it is guilty of. Unfortunately, I am unlikely to see it: The cancellation of the cinecasts and the reality that other North American companies are not going to be eager to restage it after the Met's troubles will make the seldom-performed work increasingly invisible. Of course, the protesters have a right to express their opinions – even if one suspects most of them have never seen the opera they are picketing – but their aggression closes down other people's ability to form theirs.
One of the Met protesters depicted in news photos was carrying a sign that said, with heavy irony, "The next play about the ISIS terrorists vs James Foley and Steven Sotloff should be really thought provoking!" Thing is, that could well be true.