The participants are largely senior citizens with a pretty deep familiarity with the repertoire. If there are unsold tickets, there is a generous donor who usually buys them to be distributed to students. Between the older opera fans and the young aspirants seeing the Met for the first time, it's a nice crowd. I'm of course always pushing for more contemporary, or at least modern, opera to be an option for these trips; last year I lead one to see Wozzeck. This year? The Death of Klinghoffer. My bus trips are always full of opera fans eager to learn more and experience new thing, and I have no doubt that they will embrace the chance to see an interesting opera and form their own opinions.
I can't help but compare the earnestness of my valiant Delawareans with the bitter, cynical politics swirling around the production. Especially because the questions at the heart of the controversy are fundamentally musicological ones: does this work of music glorify terrorism? Is it anti-Semitic? Does it demean the memory of a murdered man? Or more broadly, how can music have meaning one way or another; what is the relationship between music and text? These are the sorts of questions musicologists deal with every single day in the classroom and in their scholarship. To be sure, the various op-eds and blog posts on the subject of Klinghoffer rarely bring a detached critical eye to the music (if they've even seen the opera), usually instead content to parrot a few talking points about it. Not precisely the academic ideal. But then again, you'd be surprised at the glib misreadings many musicologists are equally capable of performing.
Speaking of which: if the Klinghoffer controversy is fundamentally a musicological one, it's worth remembering how it began: in an essay by an actual professional musicologist; in fact, the world's most powerful one, Richard Taruskin. Which is why Taruskin's silence on the subject this year has been somewhat odd. Maybe he's spoken about it in some forum I'm not aware of, but I've been looking and haven't seen anything. Odd because of course this was all his idea.
For the occasion of seeing this opera I re-read Taruskin's famous piece on the opera, originally published in the New York Times three months after the 9/11 attacks, and in the wake of the BSO cancellation. His points are probably familiar to most readers of this blog: the problematic sitcom-esque trivialization of Jewish Americans inserted in between the Choruses of the Exiled Palestinians and the Exiled Jews. The Bach-like musical "aureolae" hovering about the Palestinians. A call not for censorship, but "forbearance."
I'd forgotten, however, about Taruskin's tone in this writing. Especially in a passage where he leaves the opera to consider terrorism itself.
If the events of 11 September could not jar some artists and critics out of their habit of romantically idealizing criminals, then nothing will. But isn’t it time for artists and critics to grow up with the rest of us, now that the unthinkable has occurred? If terrorism—specifically, the commission or advocacy of deliberate acts of deadly violence directed randomly at the innocent—is to be defeated, world public opinion must turn decisively against it. The only way to achieve that is to focus resolutely on the acts rather than their claimed (or conjectured) motivations, and to characterize all such acts, whatever their motivation, as crimes. This means no longer romanticizing terrorists as Robin Hoods and no longer idealizing their deeds as rough poetic justice. If we indulge such notions when we happen to agree or sympathize with the aims, then we have forfeited the moral ground from which any such acts can be convincingly condemned.I almost like this passage for its humanizing effect. This isn't written by Taruskin the professional contrarian, but by Taruskin the New Yorker, feeling the wounds of his home city and the project of liberal humanism he holds so dear.
On the other hand, he expounds here upon a set of politics that was at once breathtakingly naive, and heartbreakingly disastrous. The naivety in the notion that "world public opinion" would somehow defeat terrorism. The disaster in that this is precisely the rhetoric of the War on Terror, the slippage from specific crimes into an all-out assault on these sorts of crimes, wherever they may appear, even if that be of the imaginary sort in Iraq. Taruskin imagined himself somewhere on the artistic front, rather than the military one, but it's the same war, and he played the part of Judith Miller.
Political aside: is terrorism the killing of innocent civilians? Taruskin's definition does include the provision that the killing must be "random," but was the War on Iraq ever anything but random? Taruskin might have wanted to have focused on the acts, but it's precisely the motivation and context that makes something terrorism in his eyes: the United States can never commit terrorism no matter how many innocent civilians we arbitrarily kill. Taruskin speaks about the "asymmetry" in Klinghoffer's treatment of Jews and Palestinians, but the true asymmetry is that this is an opera on the death of an American, and I am pretty sure that the Met will never produce an opera about a single one of the 2,127 people officially killed in Israel's action against Gaza this past summer. Despite the claims of liberalism, all human lives are not equal.
The particular analytical points Taruskin raised about Klinghoffer were interesting to consider at the time, but in some ways they are beside the point. Robert Fink's essay in response goes into great detail on the arguments, and I think I can fairly say that there is something approaching consensus that Fink's analysis is ultimately much more convincing. Certainly he backs up his points with more historical rigor and analytical detail, and does so in a calm, even-handed treatment of Taruskin's original essay.
Taruskin was much less kind to Fink. In a 2008 postscript appended to the republication of the essay in his book The Dangers of Music, Taruskin inveighs against seemingly every single critic who had a difference of opinion regarding Klinghoffer, with particularly sour words for John Adams himself. (Sidenote: the two men must frequently run into each other at Bay Area musical events, no? Awkward.) But at the end, he has saved enough energy to take on Fink's piece. He doesn't really address Fink's arguments, so I can just give you these extracts as a sense of how one scholar can engage with another in a small discipline:
And yet the most foolish commentary on the Klinghoffer affair, I regret to say, came not from a party to the issue, or even from a journalist, but from an academic onlooker...elaborately clever…condescending…attempted refutation…futile...Fink’s is simply not a historian’s argument, despite its being advanced by someone who calls himself a music historian…silly...This is the sort of arbitrary and opportunistic reading one is accustomed to correcting in the work of one’s undergraduates, not in the work of academic colleagues.The most powerful aspect of Fink's essay was his reading of the music itself, to counter Taruskin's claim of a musical "halo" over the terrorists, but Taruskin only addresses this in a footnote, in which the argument is dismissed as "sophistry" because it is in the wrong octave. Full disclosure: Fink was my dissertation advisor, and I think he's pretty awesome.
However, as I say, the right-ness of Fink's analysis isn't the point. Musicology, like everything we do, is ultimately a performative act. It isn't judged by being correct or incorrect, but by what it accomplishes. And to extend the performative metaphor further, the ability of musicology, especially public musicology, to accomplish something depends a helluva lot about occurring in an authorized context. Just as the words "I now pronounce you man and wife" only marries two people if spoken with authorization in a particular context, Taruskin's speech act was successful because it took place in the Times, and was spoken by Taruskin. Fink might be providing those of us in the discipline with the nuanced knowledge to make informed critical opinions about the opera, the tools to be much better teachers of contemporary music, and the model of scholarly engagement, but Taruskin is the one who will inspire the hyperbolic op-eds in the Post, the outrage of Rudy Giuliani, the cancellation of the Met HD broadcast, a hundred marauding wheelchairs in Lincoln Center.
And if the Times provided the context, who provided the authorization? That's not a question for Taruskin, but for us.