This season, the Met is performing the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer”, which depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, at the hands of terrorists.
The production claims to humanize all sides of the conflict. And yet, how can the murder of an innocent man have an “other side”? How can this crime be presented in any other way than as the murder of a human being?
These days, more than ever, we are witnessing through the media multiple murders of civilians by terrorists that are taking place almost on a weekly basis. Several people who have put themselves in harm’s way in order to help alleviate the suffering of civilians in conflict zones and to report to the world from such areas have been abducted and brutally beheaded. Their last terrifying moments have been further exploited in the most perverse way – videotaped for their families to see and in hopes that the entire world will cower in the face of such inhumanity.
Is this a time when an opera entitled “The Death of Foley” would be also acceptable at the Met? Would the Met defend the freedom of artistic expression if that were the case, as is its excuse for performing “The Death of Klinghoffer?” Would the audience feel comfortable paying for their tickets at the Met to see the opera if it were about one of the more recent victims of terror, an American beheaded by ISIS? Would the Met choose to show the two sides of the conflict in a libretto that speaks quite as virulently against America, instead of against “the Jew”, as in the libretto of “The Death of Klinghoffer?”
Art is one of the most powerful gates to the cultural arena, a powerful commentator that changes the socio-cultural discourse about life as it occurs in the news and in the street. But it can do so for better and for worse.
When it becomes legitimate to sympathize with the murderers of Klinghoffer or the hooded executioner of Foley, when such atrocities are “humanized” upon the most elevated, respectable cultural podiums such as the Met, it delineates new limits for what is “acceptable” in the artistic, cultural, socio-cultural and international discourse.
However, more important even than the decision of the Met’s director to perform the opera, objectionable as it may be, is the critical question of the potential audience’s role.
Since the end of WWII, there have been many attempts to understand the role of the “bystanders” in the rise of dictators, or even petty playground bullies. Without the complicity of those who watch from the sideline and do not feel compelled to express their outrage, without the “tolerance” of the bystander to that which should not be tolerated, without the apathy in the face of a caricature, film or book that sanctions what ought to be intolerable, these attitudes cannot become part of the new standard of what is acceptable. Bystanders are ordinary, decent people who do nothing to express their indignation about a vile trend or act when they could do so.
As the potential audience, we have a responsibility.
While the Met director may exercise his freedom of artistic expression, we must exercise our own freedom in showing where we stand morally. Through our choice to buy the tickets or not to buy them, to renew our subscriptions or to let them expire, we can express our freedom of speech, our freedom to say what will not become in our cultural discourse the new “not-so atrocious”.