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On "Klinghoffer"; Keep the Government Out of Marriages

On The Death of Klinghoffer

The final event in this year's Focus! festival will be a semistaged version of John Adams's 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. The conductor will be the composer himself. ("Adams Conducts His Klinghoffer for Focus!" The Juilliard Journal, December 2008/January 2009 issue.) Was this deemed a coup for the School? Juilliard has honored an outrageous and immoral justification of the murder of an American citizen and an aged Jew. However creative and beautiful you deem the music to be, the opera is a political statement made by the composer to justify an act of terrorism by four Palestinians. The Juilliard School, in presenting this opera, is responsible for giving sanction to an anti-Semitic and criminal act.

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Will Juilliard now commission Adams to compose another opera entitled The Death of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and Rivka Holtzberg in Mumbai? Or perhaps Death at the Twin Towers, 2001? Adams can then portray the 10 Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai as Freedom Fighters protesting the Indian occupation of Muslim territory, or the imperialism of the Lubavitcher rabbi, or the oppression of American imperialism.

May I suggest that The Juilliard School present a memorial concert for the victims of the Achille Lauro and the Mumbai massacre, with appropriate music, and oratorios of condolence for the bereaved.

Shame!

Bernard Warach, New York City
The writer is a member of the Juilliard Association

Joseph W. Polisi, the president of The Juilliard School, responded in January to Mr. Warach with the following letter, which The Juilliard Journal is printing in its entirety:

I read your letter of early December with concern and sorrow. My concern stems from the realization that Juilliard is presenting a work that causes you upset and brings forth in you a distinct anger. My sorrow is based on the fact that the frustration and hatred manifested in John Adams's work have come to life once again as I write this letter, with Israeli troops fighting Palestinians in Gaza. Since time immemorial, the work of artists has often mirrored events taking place in reality. 

Let me tell you a bit about myself and then about my views of the Adams opera. Before becoming a professional musician, I was formally educated as a political scientist with a concentration in international relations. I am a longtime friend of Israel and have visited the country on numerous occasions to help Israeli artists study and perform in the United States. My King Solomon Award from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation is a source of great pride for me. I have also researched and taught about the influence of the First Amendment on the arts and artists in America. My experiences in political science and music have played a powerful role in my thinking about The Death of Klinghoffer.

The one constant concerning Klinghoffer is that the brutal murder of a defenseless, elderly man in a wheelchair at the hands of Palestinian terrorists is a story of incomprehensible violence and frightening inhumanity. I do not know why Adams chose such a heinous tale in order to create his art, but he has the responsibility to justify his choice in a free society by creating a work that can take such a horrific story and turn it into a transformative experience for his audience. This, I deeply believe, he has achieved.

All three of Adams's large-scale operas, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, are based on events that took place between 1945 and 1985. The plot details of these operas are of common knowledge to anyone who lived through this period. The residue of these historic events is today broadcast nightly on our various news outlets. The immediacy of these stories makes them at once approachable and at the same time frighteningly familiar. A large part of the disturbing power of Klinghoffer, in my view, comes from this close chronological proximity to the horrible story depicted in the opera.

The original creative team for Klinghoffer—Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, director Peter Sellars—often spoke of the opera's structural/dramatic relationship to the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, juxtaposing narrative and commentary in complex layers. In my study of the opera, I see it functioning as a morality play rather than a through-composed narrative depicting a terrorist attack.

This "passion structure" is clearly seen in the work's division between the various choruses and the ensuing narrative scenes. Some of Adams's most sublime music in his entire oeuvre appears in those choruses. In addition, poetry provided by Goodman is often highly abstract and ethereal in nature. When that is not the case, as in the "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians," the language is at a level of intensity that one experiences, sadly, every day on CNN. In addition, the dialogue in the various narrative scenes, although much less abstract in nature, never moves beyond the level of language we associate with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as portrayed in the daily media.

What Adams has created is a powerful artistic entity, filled with exceptional musical craft and sensitivity, which presents a work of honesty and profound power. The opera ends with Marilyn Klinghoffer's lament on the death of her husband, moving from rage to happy memories to deep sorrow. Her final aria embodies the tragedy of our humanity, manifesting no division between nationalities or religions. Unlike you, I do not see this work as a "justification" of an act of terrorism, but rather a profoundly perceptive and human commentary on a political/religious problem that continues to find no resolution.

Such an extraordinary work of art like this must continue to live, no matter how horrific its basic story. I respect your right to protest the opera's topic, but Juilliard and its kindred artistic institutions have to be responsible for maintaining an environment in which challenging, as well as comforting, works of art are presented to the public.

You end your letter with the word "shame." I believe the "shame" for Juilliard would more likely have occurred if we had not had the vision and the courage to present artistic works which we believe to be transformative compositions, worthy of presentation by our students and of reflection by our audiences. If we had decided against producing Adams's opera in an effort to not offend audience members, we would have ignored our mission as an institution and community that teaches and enlightens through the wonder and power of the arts.

Keep the Government Out of Marriages

The more I read and hear about the dispute over gay marriage, the more I feel that we—and the politicians—are allowing that issue to obscure a much bigger and more inclusive one. Specifically: Why should government have any involvement in marriage at all?

Marriage should be a personal declaration of commitment between two people, shared in whatever way is meaningful to them with their friends and family and acknowledged by their religious institution, if any. Marriage—or its lack—should not have any bearing on rights bestowed by government, in the area of taxation, health benefits (COBRA), pension (ERISA, Social Security), caring for a sick loved one (F.M.L.A.), etc.

Many employers already offer family health benefits to "domestic partners." This is based not on a formal, governmental acknowledgment of that partnership, but rather on evidence of commitment in the form of shared assets and responsibilities and the naming of each other as beneficiaries. Alas, because of federal tax laws, the portion of the benefits paid for by the employer, if any, is taxed as additional income, while the portion paid by the employee is taken from post-tax, rather than pre-tax, dollars. And woe to the domestic partner if the employee loses his or her job; COBRA, as a federal law, does not allow domestic partners' coverage to be continued, even at their own (or their partners') expense. Part of the answer, of course, is for health care to be available to everyone, distinct from their employment or marital status, so that couples whose union has already dissolved don't have to remain legally wed in order to preserve one spouse's health benefits. Isn't this part of the "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" we've all been led to believe is ours as Americans?

I understand gay couples' frustration at being denied the same official recognition as that of their heterosexual counterparts. But, truly, they are fighting the wrong battle. If people want to battle over the definition of marriage, that battle should be fought with unenlightened religious institutions and employers. What we should all—regardless of our sexual orientation or marital status—be demanding is that government withdraw from the privacy of our bedrooms and personal lives and sever the connection between marital status and rights to which we are all entitled as equal citizens. We should all have the right to marry or remain single based on our feelings for each other and our understanding of what will bring us happiness and fulfillment, rather than having to approach it as a business decision foisted on us by a government that thinks it has the right to declare that one way of living is the right one and all others are wrong. If those in political office really want to bring about social change, they need to stop accepting the archaic framework of which marriage is a part and begin engaging in the creation of a new, healthier structure, in which everyone is equal.

Suzanne Mueller (B.M. '85, cello)
Great Neck, N.Y.

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