British Composer Sues London Paper Over Bad Review (and Loses)

Classic Arts News   British Composer Sues London Paper Over Bad Review (and Loses)
Keith Burstein's opera Manifest Destiny received some less-than-kind reviews when it played the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2005. One of the notices upset him so much that he sued the newspaper that published it.

The plot of the opera concerns a Palestinian writer who leaves her life (and Jewish lover) in London to return to the Middle East. She becomes radicalized, joins Al-Qaida and trains to be a suicide bomber; her cell leader, having fallen in love with her, reports her to the CIA in order to save her. Both of them end up interned at Guantanamo. She kills herself there, leaving behind a libretto — which the cell leader finds and takes back to her lover. He, being a composer, sets it to music. In a twist clearly modeled on Strauss's Capriccio, the resulting opera turns out to be ... Manifest Destiny, the work the audience has been watching.

Writing for the London Evening Standard, Veronica Lee called Burstein's opera a "trite affair" and continued "I found the tone depressingly anti-American, and the idea that there is anything heroic about suicide bombers is, frankly, a grievous insult."

Burstein, claiming that the review suggested that he approved of suicide bombings — and that he was therefore vulnerable to criminal charges of glorifying terrorism — sued the Standard's publishers for libel. The first judge to hear the case found for Burstein and awarded him £8,000 in legal costs, but a Court of Appeals reversed the verdict this past June, finding that the review met the legal standard as "fair comment" and were thus not libelous. (Under the English system of tort law, this verdict required Burstein to return his original award and pay about £80,000 for the publisher's legal costs.)

The composer attempted to appeal his case to the House of Lords, the court of final resort in England. According to a report this week in The Guardian, the Lords have refused to hear the case. The composer now says the he will take his case to the European Court of Human Rights.

This is not the first time Burstein has sued a newspaper. In 2000 he won a defamation case against The Times of London, which had published a 1997 column describing Burstein — a fervent, even militant tonalist — as "an aggressively self-righteous, rather slushy composer who used to organise bands of hecklers to go about wrecking performances of modern atonal music, particularly anything by Sir Harrison Birtwistle." Burstein did in fact participate in a notorious incident at Covent Garden in 1994, as part of a group booing a revival of Birtwistle's opera Gawain.

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