A Lesson From St. Louis

On June 17, Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager Peter Gelb announced that it would not be simulcasting John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” to cinemas around the world this fall. ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman praised the decision, expressing fear of how the opera might be received in a time of rising anti-Semitism abroad. Adams and others condemned the cancellation, maintaining that it promoted the same kind of intolerance the opera’s detractors claimed to be preventing.

The disagreement over the simulcast was settled after familiar players took familiar entrenched positions. A better approach might have been to recognize the conflict as a chance to promote dialogue and education. We wish someone had thought to adopt the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s approach.

When Opera Theatre announced its intention to perform the piece in 2011, the city embraced the work’s controversial history as an opportunity to generate conversation on interfaith subjects, and the relevance and role of art in the world. Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in the community formed a steering committee and created a guide to help study groups begin structured and constructive discussions of the themes raised in the provocative work. The packet included background materials, libretto excerpts and a chronology of events; the Opera Theatre’s website promoted it.

By contrast, the reactions in New York have been polarized and polarizing. The opera has been condemned as a rationalization of terrorism and false moral equivalencies between Palestinian and Jewish suffering. The Met’s action has been condemned as shocking, shortsighted and indefensible, a concession to certain donors and a violation of artistic free expression.

It takes vision, commitment and courage to welcome new ways of approaching the same disagreements. We could all learn a lesson from St. Louis. Maybe the next time such an opportunity arises, we’ll recognize its potential.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on July 3, 2014