The cancelling of Klinghoffer

As a left-wing, liberal Jew, there is one subject I rarely discuss in private, let alone publicly, let alone in a blog.  The Israel/Palestine situation is heart-breaking, anger-making, painful and divides Jews all over the world.   Violence cannot and never will be the answer.  The hatred on both sides fills me with despair. Of course,  fear of the other, intransigence in opinion and belief in the rightness of the cause is not confined to Israel/Palestine, but because of who I am, because the bus journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is one of the most beautiful in the world and because people I love live in that tiny country, it feels personal.  Of course it does – I’ve never hidden either my Jewishness or my political beliefs, but part of my history – my personal history – lives there.

Today, the Metropolitan Opera said this:

“After an outpouring of concern that its plans to transmit John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer might be used to fan global antisemitism, the Metropolitan Opera announced the decision today to cancel its Live in HD transmission, scheduled for November 15, 2014.”

Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, says the following:

“I’m convinced that the opera is not antisemitic. 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 antisemitism, particularly in Europe.”

For those who don’t know, The Death of Klinghoffer deals with the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 by the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Front) and subsequent murder of wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.  The opera is devastating on many levels;  difficult and challenging as the greatest art is and should be.  Since its first performance, Adams has been vilified by both sides, being accused of being both antisemitic and anti-Palestinian.  Or rather, pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli.  In my opinion it is neither.  It is raw, it is grief and despair. It doesn’t romanticize terrorism in the slightest – I often wonder how many of those baying for its closure/banning have even seen or heard it?

I had the privilege of recording the soundtrack for Penny Woolcock’s superb Channel 4 film of Klinghoffer – I was singing with the London Symphony Chorus at the time.  John Adams conducted his own work and we recorded just days after 9/11.  No-one who was there will ever forget how it felt to record Adam’s beautiful, heartbreaking score at that time.

Mr Gelb says he is convinced that the opera is not anti-semitic.  However, he is also convinced that to transmit the performance would be inappropriate.  I’m not sure how that works.  How can you be convinced of those two things at once?  And the bigger question – if you are staging it at all (which of course you should) why should the rest of the world be denied the opportunity of making their own minds up?

I am not denying for one second that there is rising anti-semitism across the world – similarly who can deny that there is anti-Muslim feeling across the world?  But how can censorship of great art be the answer?



Another reason to despise the Mail (as if I needed one)

When I realised I hadn’t blogged for a while, lo and behold the Daily Mail gave me the perfect subject, as it so often does.

Reading the Mail is like reading a foreign language, since it bears no resemblance to anything in my paper of choice (the Indie, if you would like to know).  A journo friend always reads it, because she says she needs to know what the enemy is saying and she is right.  This is what the enemy says today:

“A murderer, a drug smuggler and a child molester were allowed to star in a West End-style show inside a high-security women’s prison.

Twenty inmates featured in the £180,000 production of Sister Act, the Musical at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey last month, the Mail can reveal.  The show was put on as part of a’rehabilitation’ project designed to turn inmates away from crime.”

I know all about this show, as I auditioned for it last year and was extremely sad not to have got the job.  The organisation behind it is the extremely well-regarded charity, Pimlico Opera, and several of my friends have taken part in their shows in other prisons.

This is what they say about what they do:  “The public debate about the purpose of prison and whether it can reduce re offending is rarely out of the news. A New Philanthropy Capital survey shows re-offending costs the taxpayer approximately £13.5 billion a year and that engaging prisoners actively in arts projects could as much as halve expected re-offending rates.  A truly excellent piece of music theatre before a paying public with a cast largely made up of prisoners is the heart of the project.  Prisoners are rehearsed for six weeks full-time and they reassess their abilities and begin to think differently about themselves and their future… Prisoners see working towards a larger common good is uplifting and that hard work and discipline bring about great rewards.  Confidence, energy, teamwork, positive thinking all contribute to rehabilitation and social integration.  The project is a springboard for dialogue between prisoners and the public who are astonished by the talent they see…”

There you go.  They are ‘allowed to star in a West End-style show’.  Or are they working towards a larger common good?  At a time when prison libraries are under threat, and the idea of rehabilitation is laughable in the eyes of the Mail, isn’t it vital to find some way of stopping re-offending in as creative and positive a way as possible?
Yeah, get me the do-gooding trendy middle class arty leftie.  Soft options, pretty costumes for drug-smugglers and murderers.  To the low-life Mail reporters and their bosses, artists are food for insults and photos of actresses wearing a dress that might not suit them.  Or who might have had some work done.  Or who dare to speak up on topics that are not about the arts, or that are about the arts.  Either way, we are privileged whiners – a bit like how the Mail and Gove see teachers.
Rehearsing a show is bloody hard work.  No, it’s not as hard as being a nurse, or a paramedic – or a teacher – but it’s bloody hard work, even for those of us who do it for a living.  Imagine what it might be like if you don’t.  If you’re a prisoner, suddenly faced with the energy and discipline required of an artist wanting to put on the best show they possibly can.  And the choice of Sister Act in a women’s prison is pretty inspired; a feel-good (much as I hate that phrase) show, with some great songs and things to say about living in a community.  Delores, the lead character, is the girlfriend of a gangster and has to hide out in a convent to stay alive.  She’s not a saint, she’s not Maria from the Sound of Music.  She’s made questionable choices and probably turned a blind eye to quite a lot before she enters the witness protection programme.  People (including Mail readers and journos) lapped up Sister Act, and why not?  There’s nuns in it, so a bit religious, there’s gospel singing and comedy and morality.  Putting that show in a prison… like I said, pretty inspired.  Pimlico have also done West Side Story and Some Like it Hot.  The RSC is renowned for taking Shakespeare into Broadmoor.  In what world are these initiatives a waste of time and money (not taxpayers’ money, by the way)?
Oh, and just so you know, Daily Mail,  Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall attended a Pimlico show in 2012.  She stayed behind to talk to each of the prisoners afterwards, a group photo was taken and all the prisoners received copies.
If the Mail disapproves of Pimlico Opera, what must it think of multi-award winning arts charity Streetwise Opera, which works in the homeless sector?  This is what Streetwise says:

“Streetwise Opera is an award-winning charity that uses music to help homeless people make positive changes in their lives. We do this through a weekly music programme in 10 homeless centres across England and Wales and by staging critically-acclaimed opera productions starring our homeless performers.

Our productions, (‘Awe-inspiring’, 5 stars The Times) platform the skills of our performers in a professional arena, showing them that whatever life throws at you, you can achieve great things; underpinning these productions, our workshops are a dependable source of creative activity in lives where everything else can be changing.”

I have been privileged to be a workshop leader for Streetwise Opera since 2004.  Challenging, humbling, surprising – working for Streetwise has fundamentally changed the way I work in other areas of the arts.  Saying that I work for Streetwise Opera has opened doors to a number of other organisations who recognise it for the inspirational model it provides.  I have seen the change in the people we work with.  Streetwise has helped to reconnect people with their families, end their substance and alcohol abuse and restore self-esteem and confidence to one of the most marginalised sectors of our community.  As one Streetwise participant says: “Being homeless means that for many people I don’t exist.  With Streetwise Opera, I do more than exist.  I live.”

Daily Mail-bashing is like an Olympic sport for many of us.  But every time a blinkered, ill-researched, sensationalist piece of shit like this article is published, it diminishes not only those who work to make a difference, but everyone who reads it.