What Would Toscanini Do?
What Would Toscanini Do?

Those who protested the performance of The Murder of Klinghoffer spoke at a press conference and at a rally outside the Metropolitan Opera House. One of their demands was that the opera not be shown.

Clearly, that demand was not met.

I, and many others, never called for a boycott although some people did. They are good people, they did not “rant” as one reporter described it. Mainly, they were people of a certain age who have lived through the Holocaust (or their parents did); people who have also seen the effects of terrorism close-up in Israel, and in America, on 9/11.

Thus, they are genuinely frightened and angry. Most are principled people, they are not “tacky” as a reporter has described those who tried to disrupt the opera. In fact, the one man who actually did so was immediately surrounded by a large number of police and Opera House security officers, led away in handcuffs, kept in a holding cell for 90 minutes, then booked, charged, and released.

He was probably wearing a suit and a tie.

He and others were given free tickets at the rally by an unknown man—tickets which were not honored at the box office. Some people think that this was Peter Gelb’s way of tricking and separating out the potential dissenters. However, the man who got arrested simply bought another ticket on the spot.  

I did not speak at the press conference or at the rally. Instead, on October 14th, I participated in a Teach-in at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on the issues raised by the opera—a Teach-in which had been organized by Dr. Charles Small, the founder and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy (ISGAP). Many of the protestors also attended this event which was televised and is now archived at my website.

And—I took Peter Gelb’s invitation seriously. I went in to see the opera. I had already listened to it, studied the libretto, watched the movie of the opera, and listened to the composer and director discuss their ideas—but no matter. An invitation is an invitation. I sat together with Dr. Small and we watched and we listened.

Whatever our views may have been, here’s what we were up against: Fourteen—yes 14—articles that favored and promoted the opera before it opened appeared in the New York Times. Five articles appeared in June of 2014 and nine articles appeared in September and October; a special website for only this opera was offered at the Met web site; tickets were offered at $25.00—$80.00 which is something unheard of. An admiring advance article appeared in the October issue of Opera News, which is the official magazine of the Opera House, to which I faithfully subscribe. General Manager Peter Gelb took to the media and to the airwaves together with First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus.

Today, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal gave the opera glowing reviews. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency found it rather boring but did not feel it was as bad as many of the anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic views that are running riot in the world today.

Alas, the reviewer is right. The opera was first performed in 1991 or 23 years ago. Things have gotten worse—in fact, so much so, that the libretto’s overt anti-Jewish statements and the production’s overt pro-Palestinian narrative does not seem that extreme or unusual.

But both the libretto and the Met’s production does follow a very false pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel narrative and in my view, this alone renders it vulnerable to the charge of anti-Semitism. What makes this production dangerous is precisely its artfulness in terms of lighting, scenery, costumes, singing,  acting and conducting. A very terrible message is being delivered in a beautiful form.

Here’s what people are failing to understand:  Just as false pro-Palestinian narratives are rampant on campuses, at the United Nations, the EU, at anti-Israel demonstrations, and in the mainstream media—unsurprisingly, they have now made a very public appearance in a major opera house.

And there is nothing we can do about it. Or is there?

Someone should write and compose an opera with a very different perspective. Nothing less will do. My colleague, Italian journalist and writer Giulio Meotti suggested just that.

At this moment, I am reminded of the great Maestro, Arturo Toscanini who refused to perform for Mussolini or to conduct the Italian national anthem. In fact, Toscanini was once the principal conductor and at the Metropolitan Opera House. He opposed fascism and was a fierce democrat.

In 1936, at the request of Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, Toscanini decided to travel to Palestine to train the orchestra and conduct the first concerts of what later became known as the Israel Philharmonic, composed of refugee Jewish musicians. He refused to accept a fee. Toscanini said: “I had to show my solidarity.” And then he stayed in (British Mandatory Jewish Palestine) for more than a month. His concerts were sold-out in Tel Aviv and Haifa and ovations lasted for more than 30 minutes.

I am not suggesting that conductor David Robertson should have put down his baton and walked away. This is not an exact parallel because Toscanini opposed a fascist state and the Metropolitan Opera is not a state. And yet, the PLO and Hamas and other terrorist groups who menace our world today are fascist and totalitarian and utterly evil.

What does it mean to portray them and their cause in a romantic and flattering way?

What does it mean that we have allowed the ideas of terrorist groups to permeate our culture at every level and in every way?

Artful propaganda legitimizes terrorists who are already planning to attack civilians. The world’s threshold of resistance is being fatefully lowered, not only by the endless number of just such attacks but by the denial that such attacks exist, or pose a threat.

What would Toscanini do?