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Controversial opera, 'Death of Klinghoffer, expected to prompt lively discussion

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, ​May 24, 2011 -  In 1985 four Palestinians hijacked an Italian cruise ship, the MS Achille Lauro. Among the passengers were Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer who were celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary. The terrorists singled out and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish-American retired appliance manufacturer and stroke survivor, who used a wheel chair. After Klinghoffer was shot and killed, his body -- and wheelchair -- were tossed overboard.

It was a shocking moment, coming decades before the terrorist atrocities that have become all too commonplace.

It also proved to be a shocking subject for an opera. In 1991, the opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" by American composer John Adams and poet Alice Goodman debuted to controversy and criticism, with some saying that the opera was too sympathetic to the Palestinian hijackers. Perhaps because of the subject matter, "The Death of Klinghoffer" has not been widely or frequently performed.

This year, though, "The Death of Klinghoffer" is the fourth production in the Opera Theatre of St. Louis 2011 season, opening June 15.

In preparation for the opera, and its contentious subject matter, a panel discussion on the opera, "A Work that Fires the Heart." will be held at 7 p.m., Thurs., May 26 at the Ethical Society, 9001 Clayton Road in Ladue. Admission is free.

Timothy O'Leary, general director of Opera Theatre, and three interfaith leaders will talk about art as it intersects with faith and political conflict, particularly today in the Middle East.

"I've heard it said that you need 20 years between a historical event and when you put it on stage," said O'Leary. "Now it's more than 20 years since the Achille Lauro hijacking. There is nothing in the opera that is pro-terrorist."

Washington University Center for Humanities director and professor Gerald Early will moderate the panel. The panelists are: Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council; David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary; Dr. Ghazala Hayat, a St. Louis University Medical School neurologist who was the first woman to be chairman of a major U.S. mosque, the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis.

O'Leary who was moved by the opera when he saw its American debut in Brooklyn serves as the panel's opera expert.

"It is important to talk about this," said Abramson-Goldstein, who praised the company for organizing the panel. (Members of the panel have reviewed the lyrics and score and met together in preparation for the panel.)

"We are standing on the shoulders of the Interfaith Partnership in this," said Allison Felter, head of OTSL's education department. "The Interfaith Partnership has been having conversations like this for many years."

The local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League released a statement from Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer:

"We are greatly distressed that the Opera Theatre of St. Louis has decided to stage The Death of Klinghoffer -- a production which American opera companies have avoided for 20 years. Our personal grief and sensitivity to the controversy that has surrounded presentations of the opera since its premiere are not diminished by the passage of time.

"We are strong supporters of the arts, and believe that theater can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events. This opera, however, does no such thing. The Death of Klinghoffer takes a heinous terrorist event and rationalizes, legitimizes, and explains it. There is no way that this terrorist murder can or should be presented in a balanced manner.

"There can be no compassion, understanding, or objectivity for terrorists, no matter who they are, where they live, or what their story is."

As in so many other operas, the criminals in this one sing. That offended some, when it was presented in Brooklyn in 1991, weeks after the anti-Semitic violence of the nearby Crown Heights Point three-day riot.

Great operas from Bizet's "Carmen," Verdi's "Otello" to Mozart's "Don Giovanni," and some contemporary operas including Jake Heggie's and Terrence McNally's 2000 opera "Dead Man Walking," feature singing murderers and rapists.

Yet "The Death of Klinghoffer" has some differences from traditional operas. Instead of an orchestral overture, for example, Adams and Goodman begin with a pair of choruses: "The Chorus of the Exiled Palestinian" and the "Chorus of the Returning Jews." Each chorus is exactly eight and a half minutes and sets up the Middle East conflict over territory.

Opera Theatre's long-time commitment to opera education -- from first-grade classrooms to talks before each festival season performance -- has won the St. Louis company national praise for music education.

Patricia Rice, a freelance journalist, attended and covered OTSL's 1976 opening night "Don Pasquale" featuring Ron Raines.