Critic’s Notebook: A predicament right out of a melodramatic opera

Jason Switzer as Mamoud, left, and Robin Buck as Leon Klinghoffer in John Adams' opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" by Long Beach Opera in March 2014.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

When announcements for the next opera season began arriving early this year, the overall impression was that our country’s companies were getting livelier if not yet up to the more progressive European model.

Los Angeles Opera, in particular, is coming out of an economic slump and once again beginning to look like an artistic leader. In an especially encouraging development, American — and new American — opera has become commonplace all over the land.

But during the final days of winter, a deadly opera virus hit. The first case was discovered in Southern California, threatening to fell San Diego Opera.


One day, the company was fine, detailing a new education initiative and readying its coming celebratory 50th-anniversary season.

The next, the company’s longtime general and artistic director, Ian Campbell, had proclaimed that opera was no longer a sustainable art form in San Diego. Labor costs had become prohibitive, former levels of fundraising were no longer feasible, and audiences were shrinking. He proposed euthanasia.

Now, the virus has crossed the country. Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb recently told the Guardian newspaper in England that opera as an art form was in trouble.

The Met is involved in bitter contract negotiation with its unions, and Gelb’s position is that his company can no longer afford labor costs estimated at $200 million a year or count on former fundraising ambitions. Audiences are down.

Gelb is not advocating the San Diego final solution. But the message is the same: Opera ain’t what it used to be.

More to the point, opera companies aren’t what they used to be. The art form is not standing still. It’s growing, uncontrollably, by leaps and messy bounds.


Opera has never had a wider or more anarchic reach. You can’t escape it. Opera is broadcast in cinemas and at Times Square in New York. Opera pops up on the streets, in parks and at clubs. Museums mount operas, often with the intention of reinvention. There have been opera performances of late in grocery stores and banks as well as at a wax museum in New York and Union Station in Los Angeles. Symphony orchestras everywhere do it. Hipsters in Brooklyn do it.

Opera opportunities for stay-at-homes are overwhelming. No one can possibly keep up with the flood of opera recordings and videos. Daily streaming and webcasting of live opera performances from around the world are a mere mouse click away. I’ll leave it to statisticians to calculate how many lifetimes it would take to watch all the opera clips on YouTube.

San Diego Opera came to its senses, thanks to a public outcry. The company has reversed course. It has removed Campbell (and his outsize compensation), and it will celebrate its 50th anniversary after all.

The Met has another month to find a labor solution, and it most likely will. The unions insist on maintaining the most generous salaries, benefits and work rules in the business. They have accused Gelb of mismanagement for his attempts to keep up with the times by presenting interesting new operas and productions rather than counting on a crowd-pleasing, potboiler aesthetic. This need not be taken seriously.

The bigger worry is the vote of no confidence in opera as an art form. In San Diego and at the Met, opera has found itself in danger of being appropriated by special interest groups (or individuals) thinking only of themselves.

And this is now being exacerbated by a controversy over Gelb caving in to the demands of the Anti-Defamation League to cancel the Live in HD broadcasts in worldwide cinemas of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” lest the opera “fan global anti-Semitism.”

Gelb, who is Jewish, has publicly said he does not believe the opera to be anti-Semitic. Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, has said that he too is not charging “Klinghoffer” with being anti-Semitic. He’s never seen it, but he is charged with representing the concerns of the Jewish community and the relatives of Leon Klinghoffer.

Yet everything about this controversy reminds us of the unique power of opera. No one would make a fuss about a film reenacting the Palestinian terrorist hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the murder of a Jewish tourist from New Jersey thrown off the Italian cruise ship in his wheelchair. In fact, there have been such films.

Thrillers about terrorists, moreover, are a dime a dozen. In these films, villainous terrorists say objectionable things because that is what objectionable, villainous terrorists are supposed to say. When they sing such sentiments in opera, however, we freak out.

The objections to “Klinghoffer” have mainly revolved around the sheer poetic eloquence of Alice Goodman’s libretto and Adams’ score, which allows the hijackers to seem momentarily sympathetic. We recognize the injustice they feel, and we might even share their hopes and dreams. Music is a medium in which they can express their romantic vision. If we listen carefully, we may even, for half a second, feel as they feel.

The greatness of “Klinghoffer” — and of opera — is just how dangerous that half-second can be. Here is an explanation I have never found anywhere else of how human nature can be so subverted that someone becomes a suicide bomber. The effectiveness of Adams’ opera is to then reveal the ways a romantic vision can lead to epic tragedy, the killing on the Achille Lauro and the ever-present bloodshed in the Middle East that horrifies us every day.

Foxman had nothing to fear about the Met’s coming “Klinghoffer,” which will still be performed at the Met, just not broadcast. The production originated at the English National Opera and is by Tom Morris, who was also responsible for “Jerry Springer: The Opera” and “War Horse.” He turns a meditation of biblical proportions about good and evil into white-knuckle drama. Adams’ heroic depiction of Klinghoffer leaves no question of wherein lies the moral high ground. Even so, Morris takes no chances on that account.

But that just goes to show the extent of the larger crisis of confidence in opera. On one level, it is a fear of opera, of its power. On another, the situation at the Met is one of size. The company operates like a bank too big to fail.

The Met’s problem may actually be that it is too big to succeed. It plays in a massive 3,800-seat house and necessarily becomes avaricious in its needs for audiences and funds. The company functions almost as an opera factory, expertly mounting productions day in and day out. With an annual budget of approximately $325 million as the prize, the unions want a big piece of an oversize pie.

Gelb’s proposed cutbacks are not unreasonable when they concern reducing overtime. Under the current rules, a stagehand can wind up taking home more than $450,000 a year. Everything about the Met — its budget, its huge home, its massive staff, its schedule of seven performances a week during its eight-month season and its visibility (everybody has an opinion, whether considered or not) — conspire to suffocate opera.

As long ago as the 1970s, the company recognized the perils of unregulated operatic growth and proposed creating a Mini Met. It would allow the Met to branch out into small-scale productions to complement the big shows. Finding a way to do it and meet union demands proved insoluble. Gelb attempted to revive that idea when he took over in 2007. He has not been able to make it feasible.

I don’t agree with many of Gelb’s decisions. He can be artistically tame and middlebrow, where being bold might work. But he has the hardest, most contentious job in all of opera, trying to keep a massive ship afloat and getting attacked on all sides.

Opera doesn’t need the Met as much as the Met needs opera. Whether he wants it or not, Gelb has been given a bully pulpit thanks to the union and “Klinghoffer” disputes. The very fact that so many people are worked up about the Met is evidence that opera has the ability to get people’s attention.

Even Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has weighed in on “Klinghoffer,” claiming it takes the side of terrorists. She offers no evidence, and she needs to be challenged. This is Gelb’s moment to promote opera, not let the art form be bullied by politicians, special interest groups or anyone else.