Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met, 2

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access images and sound.

As we wrote in conclusion of our last post, opera fans all over the world who had looked forward to forming their own opinion of the much debated The Death of Klinghoffer, were disappointed last June when the title was dropped from the “Live in HD” schedule. Some time prior to the June cancellation, Peter Gelb had declared, “Although there has been a campaign against Klinghoffer at the Met, we will not allow this opera to be suppressed, since it is neither anti-Semitic, nor a glorification of terrorism” (The Metropolitan Opera 14-15 Season Book). (For two frequently cited opposing positions on this question central to the opera’s reception, click on Robert Fink and
Richard Taruskin.) Gelb was evidently persuaded to change his mind by the Klinghoffer daughters, the Anti-Defamation League, and “three or four” major donors (Times). His reversal may have been due in part to the victories of parties on the right, some blatantly anti-Semitic, in the European parliamentary elections: “I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic but I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.” (Times) 

This blog promises to tie the present to the past. And in that spirit, we evoke here the truncation of the run of Richard Strauss’s Salome after its Met premiere on January 22 1907 and suggest that it serves as an object lesson for the withdrawal of the TV and radio simulcasts of The Death of Klinghoffer. The Salome affair is not the only other instance of the company’s self-censorship; it is the one that aligns itself most closely with the action taken last June, as you will note as you read on.

The account that follows is drawn from our recent publication, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met.

In late summer 1906, general manager Heinrich Conried let it be known that in the coming season the Met would be the first company to stage a Strauss opera in the United States, and that that opera would be Salome. His negotiations with Strauss concluded with an agreement for ten shows at what Conried protested were unheard-of, “ridiculously high” fees.  That October, the general manager announced the first performance, at double the usual prices, of the one-act opera based on Oscar Wilde’s 1894 notorious French play. The opera had, “for more than a year, been the storm center of the musical world.”  Conried himself had qualms about the work’s New York reception. He wrote to Strauss, “I . . . don’t know how the American people will take to the subject, and I have simply said that, even at the risk of my audiences  not liking  the  material, I, as Director of the Metropolitan Opera House, would be bound to produce your opera before my audiences—an opera which I, personally, and unendingly, admire.”

On a Sunday morning, two days before the premiere, Conried scheduled a semipublic dress rehearsal of Salome’s erotic encounter with saintliness and death. Those who went to the trouble and expense of buying tickets surely knew what they were in for. The Gospel tale of the depraved daughter of Herodias was very much in circulation. Two days before the premiere, the Herald had carried a large photo of Olive Fremstad as Salome holding a silver platter on which sat the papier-mâché head of John the Baptist.

Fremstad, a Swedish-American dramatic soprano, searingly intense as Isolde and Kundry, could be frightening in her dedication to her art.  Her studies for Salome had included a much-publicized trip to the city morgue to gauge the weight of a human head, grossly undervalued by the prop she was to fondle. Most chronicles record that the audience drew back in revulsion when Fremstad “kisse[d] the bloody lips and presse[d] her teeth into the gelid flesh” of the severed head.

While Conried had had misgivings about the reaction of his audience, he had failed to reckon with the puritanical sensibilities of his patrons.  Not only did the Metropolitan directors weigh in, they weighed in quickly and decisively. Three days after the premiere, they effectively demanded that Conried cancel the remaining performances. Led by J. P. Morgan, the most powerful member of the board, they declared that “the directors of the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company consider that the performance of Salome is objectionable and detrimental to the best interests of the Metropolitan Opera House. They therefore protest against any repetition of this opera.”

The directors were unanimous in their condemnation; one threatened more than termination of contract: “I understand that if Mr. Conried attempts to put the opera on in spite of the objections which have been made the board is quite likely to use force to prevent his doing so” (Times).  A number of pastors jumped in with both feet during their Sunday sermons. The Tribune cited Methodist Episcopal Rev. Dr. Charles Edward Locke’s conclusion that “such productions were responsible for such tragedies as the Stanford White case,” a reference to Harry Thaw’s murder of White in 1906 over the noted architect’s affair with Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbitt.  

The “protest” of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company was, in fact, an interdiction that Conried attempted in vain to have overturned. In 1922, the great Met patron Otto Kahn tried again to convince the Metropolitan owners to allow the staging of the opera, a specialty of the new diva, Maria Jeritza, “an artist of the highest attainments and of dignity and refinement.”  He went on to assure the Metropolitan directors in the most ingratiating terms that he would “be unwilling to sanction any performance which could give just offence to the moral or religious sentiments of the community.” Kahn was again rebuffed. It was not until 1934, twenty-seven years after her stand-in ballerina had shed the seventh veil, that Fremstad, seated in the audience, could witness the famous dance, at last repeated at the Met.

The Death of Klinghoffer may well return to the Met in the coming years. But when will it be broadcast to the global audience on the radio and “Live in HD”?

If you wish to comment on our blog, please click on “comment” below.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access images and sound.

John Adams’s 1991 The Death of Klinghoffer had its Metropolitan premiere this past Monday. It is the third opera of the eminent contemporary American composer to be performed at the Met, following on Dr. Atomic (2008) and Nixon in China (2011). And it is undoubtedly the most contested—pace Adams’s claim that “I did not do it to be controversial or to be provocative.”

Alice Goodman’s libretto, after a concept developed by the director Peter Sellars, is based on the 1985 Palestine Liberation Front hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro as it sailed the Mediterranean off the coast of Egypt. The next stop was to be an Israeli port; the hijackers’ mission was to shoot Israeli soldiers as the ship docked, in retribution for an attack on PLO headquarters in Tunisia. The operation went hopelessly wrong almost immediately. The four terrorists on board proceeded to separate the American, British, and Jewish passengers from the others. After hours and days of anguish at sea and when it became clear that Syria would not permit the vessel entry into Tartus, the Palestinians shot paralyzed Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer, and had him and his wheelchair thrown overboard. His distraught and fatally-ill wife, Marilyn, learned of her husband’s murder as the Achille Lauro turned towards Port Said where the terrorists, having struck a deal for their own safety, were led away.

We first saw Klinghoffer in fall 1991 during its U.S. premiere run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; we were at the Met last Monday evening. As many of our readers will remember, there were protests twenty-three years ago, as there have been in the last several weeks. Then, charges of anti-Semitism and of the romanticizing of terror were leveled at the work and its artistic team; now, these same charges have been directed with most insistence at Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.  

Our response to the current production differs markedly from the one we registered all those years ago. For one thing, we have listened to the opera often and find Adams’s “mournful, meditative score” (Alex Ross) increasingly compelling.  For another, the second section of the three-part original prologue was dropped after the BAM shows. The scene (unrecorded and absent from the published score) consists of a long exchange between a New Jersey suburban husband and wife, fictive friends of the Klinghoffers, and their grown son. The offending sketch, set in 1985, was peppered with Jewish sitcom humor and uncomfortably sandwiched between the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews, both situated in 1948.  This foundational moment, disturbingly caricatural, threatened the purity of non-partisan intention claimed by the authors. The Death of Klinghoffer, that some have called more an oratorio than an opera, now opens with the two ruminative choruses back to back.

Chorus of Exiled Palestinians

Chorus of Exiled Jews

Adams’s score owes a debt to Bach's Passions, as the composer readily acknowledges.There are nonetheless duets, passages of confrontation between characters, and extended arias rooted in the here and now of the dramatic situation that speak to Adams’s debt to the conventions of opera. Leon Klinghoffer’s long monologue, sung after his death, extends the work’s metaphysical vein. Marilyn Klinghoffer has the final say in a long aria of her own. In strongly expressive musical gestures that exploit the contralto’s lowest notes, she berates the ship’s captain, mourns her dead husband, evokes his suffering, their love, her own impending death, and accuses the world of having abandoned two unfortunate Jews. The clip that follows is sung by Sheila Nadler, from the original cast of the opera.

Marilyn Klinghoffer's final aria, "You embraced them"

Tom Morris’s Met Klinghoffer stands somewhere between Peter Sellars’s abstractions seen in Brooklyn in 1991 and the docudrama realism of Penny Woolcock’s moving picture version of the opera, telecast in the UK in 2003, subsequently released on DVD. Tom Pye’s minimalist décor (a ship’s railing, a staircase, a few chairs) relies heavily on video projections of arid landscape and water, punctuated by titles that provide the historical background. Contrary to the original production, in which everyone on stage was dressed alike, Laura Hopkins’s costumes differentiate the Palestinian from the Jewish figures, the crew, the terrorists, and the tourists. Where Sellars privileged the mythic and Woolcock the literal, Morris engages with both. To take one example, where Adams enigmatically prescribes a mezzo-soprano for the terrorist Omar, here the role is divided, enacted by a male dancer and sung by a “Palestinian Woman.” Omar becomes a plausible character whose initiation to terrorism is stylized in choreography set to an impassioned female voice. The staging, efficient, sometimes moving, faltered in the key moment of Klinghoffer’s post-morten “Aria of the Falling Body”—in front of watery projections, the murdered man merely rises from his wheelchair and sings.

The music was excellently served by conductor David Robertson, chorus master Donald Palumbo, and their orchestral and choral forces. Outstanding among the soloists was Michaela Martens, as Marilyn Klinghoffer, who demonstrated that her wide-ranging mezzo-soprano should no longer be made to serve secondary roles.

Opera fans all over the world who had looked forward to forming their own opinion of The Death of Klinghoffer after viewing the production “Live in HD” were disappointed last June when the title was deleted from the simulcast schedule. In the next post we will consider the Klinghoffer controversy and the suppression of the simulcast in light of other instances of Met self-censorship: the cancellation of Richard Strauss’s Salome in 1907 after just one performance, the banning of the German language on the Met stage during World War I, and the banishment of Madama Butterfly during World War II.

If you wish to comment on our blog, please click on “comment” below.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Macbeth at the Met

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access images and sound.

It was general manager Rudolf Bing who, in January 1959, first brought Giuseppe Verdi’s opera to the Metropolitan. He had launched his stewardship eight seasons earlier with the Met premiere of the composer’s Don Carlo.

The Macbeth production promised to be the hit of the season, a starry affair, a spectacular vehicle for Leonard Warren and Maria Callas. Callas had sung at the Met in the previous two seasons to great acclaim. In November of what would have been the third, Bing fired her in as public a manner as he could contrive. She had committed herself to alternating Lady Macbeth with Violetta and, for the first time, to the national tour. But the diva changed her mind, presenting the excuse that toggling between the heavier and the lighter Verdi roles, even with a week’s rest in between, would invite vocal strain. Bing suggested she replace Violetta with Tosca or Lucia, upon which Callas retorted: “My voice is not an elevator, going up and down.” When she failed to comply with her agreement by the deadline Bing set, he sacked her for breach of contract, to the outrage of the press and the public.

That was not all. Shakespeare’s unlucky “Scottish play” lived up to its reputation when in January 1959, the very month Macbeth was to open, the conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, suffered a heart attack. Leonie Rysanek, in her Met debut, took over for Callas, Erich Leinsdorf for Mitropoulos. As the Viennese soprano made her entrance, there came from the audience the shout of “Brava Callas.” Bing later confessed that it was he who had arranged for the offensive outburst; he had wanted to win sympathy for his substitute. Despite uncertain lower and middle registers, and a frequently ill-tuned though resplendent top, the charismatic Rysanek notched a great success. Warren and Carlo Bergonzi (in the essentially one-aria role of Macduff) acknowledged the belcantist traces of Verdi’s score. This was the third Macbeth with which Bing was intimately involved, all three directed by Carl Ebert and designed by Caspar Neher. But by 1959, their expressionistic concept had had its day. 

The Met’s next Macbeth came in 1982 and set off one of the most boisterous receptions in memory. Peter Hall and John Bury had had the ingenious notion of returning Macbeth to the theatre practice of Verdi’s youth, with flying witches and a giant cauldron from which emerged a nearly nude Hecate and effigies of the apparitions. James Levine conducted Verdi’s complete 1865 Paris revision of his 1847 score; it included a ballet danced by sylphs in tutus as Macbeth lay dying. The public saw it as Gothic gone amok; it responded with laughter, boos, and a few altercations. During the third and last revival of the Hall/Bury show, the Macbeth curse struck again. On January 23, 1988, the Saturday matinée was suspended at the second-act intermission by the suicide of Bantcho Bantchevsky, an eighty-two-year-old Bulgarian singing coach and Met habitué, who jumped eighty feet to his death from the family circle. 

The current blood-splattered, black and white production of Macbeth dates back to 2007, Peter Gelb’s second year. It will be seen “Live in HD” on Saturday, October 11. Adrian Noble’s provocative updating to the 20th century eschews both the picturesque rendering of Scotland and the literal enactment of the scenario: the witches sport the pocketbooks and bobby socks of 1950s bag ladies, Macduff sings from a Jeep, Lady Macbeth teeters on a row of chairs in the “Sleepwalking” scene. The Met’s luxury casting for the 2014 revival has had rapturous reviews: Zeljko Lucic in the title role, Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth, René Pape as Banquo, and Joseph Calleja as Macduff.

The clips that follow feature four sopranos in two of Lady Macbeth’s arias, and a baritone in Macbeth’s death scene: Anna Netrebko and Shirley Verrett, Maria Callas and Martha Mödl, Leonard Warren.

Here Netrebko sings Lady Macbeth’s entrance aria, recorded in the 2012 concert that inaugurated St. Petersburg’s new Mariinsky Theatre. While she conveys ferocity with dramatic coloratura, abrupt descents to the lower register, incisive attacks on high, and a powerful, dark sound, Netrebko's character remains generalized. This is early in the transformation of the erstwhile belcanto soubrette of L’Elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale into the heavy-duty dramatic soprano she is becoming. (Netrebko will open the Met's 2017-18 season in a new production of Norma.) Viewers of this Saturday's simulcast will be able to contrast the two versions for themselves, as they will be able to contrast Netrebko’s representation of Verdi’s monstrous heroine with Shirley Verrett’s iconic interpretation in the subsequent clip.


In 1988, near the end of her more than two-decade career with the company, Verrett sang her sole Met Lady Macbeth. By that time, she had seesawed between mezzo-soprano and soprano roles, with the result that register breaks had become all too pronounced. Seen here in 1978, in Giorgio Strehler’s remarkable La Scala production of Verdi’s opera, she is at the peak of her powers, her scale even, and as always, her presence and her intensity fully deployed. Masterfully conducted by Claudio Abbado, Verrett brings the full force of her concentration to this portrait of untrammeled ambition. The clip ends with the two-minute-long ovation she received from the Milan public.


With her abrupt exit in 1959, the Met lost the chance to hear the Callas version of the role. The recording of the “Sleepwalking” scene released that very year is evidence that she would have registered a triumph in New York. Callas’s temperament and musical imagination were made for Lady Macbeth. The horrific murder of King Duncan and the overwhelming guilt that followed are vivid in the soprano’s timbre, by turns veiled, as in a trance, and exposed in naked pain. Please note: the orchestral introduction to the "Sleepwalking" scene lasts approximately three minutes.

In Martha Mödl’s 1952 German-language recording of the “Sleepwalking” scene, Verdi’s phrases are altered by the preponderance of final consonants. If neither the singer’s sound nor highly expressionistic approach can be called Italianate, her voice approximates the composer’s specifications--“una voce aspra ... vorrei che la voce di Lady Macbeth fosse qualcosa di diabolico! [a bitter voice ... I would like Lady Macbeth's voice to have something of the diabolic].” Many have found her reading mesmerizing, beautiful in its own terms. Mödl, who never sang Italian opera in her brief Met career, was, like Verrett, a mezzo who, for a time, took on soprano roles, mostly in Wagner. Here she is caught at her best, before the cost of dramatic utterance, often at the highest emotional pitch in the top register, caught up with her. Mödl eventually returned to the mezzo realm and sang character roles brilliantly well into the 1980s.

In opposition to Lady Macbeth’s noctambulist bravura, Macbeth’s final aria, “Pietà, rispetto, amore [Pity, respect, love],” reflects a calm acceptance that his misdeeds have deprived him of respect and that no kind words will be engraved on his tombstone. Leonard Warren, the Met’s first Thane of Cawdor, evinces the dynamic range and the perfectly calibrated legato that place him in the very top rank of 20th-century Verdi baritones.

If you wish to comment on our blog, please click on “comment” below.