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Musings: 'Klinghoffer' forces us to face evil

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 16, 2011 - It is difficult to imagine that an ugly crime on the high seas involving a man confined to a wheelchair being murdered by four punks would result in the creation of a full-length, two-act opera by a composer and a poet of international reputation. Certainly such a crime, because of its exotic nature, might merit sustained tabloid coverage or the spotlight in some annals of crime or another; but when you think about the crimes committed in recent history, the murder described above would seem to be of fleeting interest to a crime-obsessed or crime-weary world.

There is, however, the case of Leon Klinghoffer, similar in so many respects to the murder described above, yet so different, and so packed with lessons that need examining as only the prism of art can do with any adequacy.

The killing of this elderly man Klinghoffer, an innocent passenger aboard the cruise ship M.S. Achille Lauro, greatly exceeded the ordinary, however,  and was considerably more complex than simply exotic and temporarily culturally titillating. Klinghoffer was a Jew, and his killers were members of the Palestinian Liberation Front. Therefore this particular murder - Klinghoffer was shot and then pushed overboard in his wheelchair - skips over the police blotter and proceeds directly into the realm of the mythic.

Imbedded in the persons and the psyches of passenger Leon Klinghoffer on one hand and terrorists Youssef Majed al-Molqi, Ibrahim Fatayer Abdellatif, Bassam al-Asker and Ahmad Marouf al-Assad on the other are contrary philosophies that, as we know, have the potential of igniting armed conflicts, conflicts that at any moment could escalate in a Middle Eastern war so ferocious it would make our engagements in Iraq and in Afghanistan look like mere July 4 fireworks.

The modern roots of the conflict date from May 14, 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel, but tougher, far deeper roots were put down in the late 19th century with the birth of the Zionist movement, followed by the Balfour Declaration of 1917. In that declaration, Great Britain sanctioned the establishment of a national home for Jews in Palestine. But long before Theodor  Herzl or the first Earl Balfour or Sir Moses Montefiore came on the scene, battles and wars have been fought between the Israelites and their neighbors, the Philistines among them,  since 1000 BCE, if not before.

So the impetus for the highjacking of the Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer was nothing new exactly, but it was a powerful enough and horrible enough human situation -- something greater than mere crime, something that rose to the level of evil -- to set in motion the composition of an opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer," by John Adams with a libretto by the poet Alice Goodman.

The opera's premiere was in 1991 at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, but controversy connected to it, not to mention the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, have served to frighten off many companies that otherwise would relish the idea of bringing an opera of this artistic power and cultural significance by John Adams to the stage.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis has risen to the challenge, however, and on Wednesday evening the company presented the first fully staged production since 1991. The production is vivid and daring, performed in front of one of the most magnificent sets ever put together on the Loretto-Hilton's stage. The cast is uniformly magnificent and presents the deeply affecting story, with all its aspects of tragedy and pathos, with dignity and distinction. The performance was rewarded with a huge and sustained ovation Wednesday. Among those sitting in the opera house on Wednesday was John Adams himself.

"Klinghoffer" has been a magnet for controversy throughout its 20-year history. The Beacon has given the controversies in-depth attention, and Opera Theatre has presented programs aimed at educating the public about aspects of the opera that might generate discomfort. None of the issues can be dismissed off-handedly. The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement opposing its production here.

Opera Theatre's production is masterful; any criticism of the show would relate not to the quality of it but to sections of the libretto that sacrifice clarity on the altar of poetic obscurity. But that aside, by the final curtain, I was awestruck, simply because so much that concerns and confounds men and women of good will everywhere, including those on both sides of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, is presented so carefully and clearly, and with such grace and humility, in "Klinghoffer."

Accepting that we all desire peace, or most of us do anyway, achievement of it seems forever beyond us. All of us share a common humanity and, I believe, a sense of what is good and furthermore the desirability of living good lives. But  if we truly do want to resolve conflicts and to do good, how do we deal with the horrifying and ever present reality that seeds of treachery and violence sit quietly within each of us, waiting to be cultivated and to germinate into trouble? What happens to us as a species when the ethic of reciprocity is twisted, corrupted, so that doing unto others means raping them, or burning their eyes out or killing them as their children look on because, at some time or another, literally or figuratively, others have done that unto us or to ours? How do we get beyond believing in the superiority of our way over their way. And then, what happens to us when we go into the opera house to be confronted with a beast such as "The Death of Klinghoffer," a beast that prowls about exhibiting all the pathology described above.

This beast is ugly, and some would argue that the best thing to do, even the right thing to do, is to leave such an opera be, to aesthetically anesthetize it and put it in some sort of suspended animation chamber where it can be contained and watched, just to keep the reality of it in play, but otherwise neutralized and safely confined. We do that with other works of art that scare us or shake our faith in shared wisdoms, but we do that at our peril, for in confining evidence of our carelessness or brutality or perfidy, we simply forget -- rather than Never Forget.

Why, when the beast as revealed through "Klinghoffer" has been relatively dormant for so many years, let it loose now?

There's a cynical response, which is that a revival such as this is bound to generate attention and greater coverage than the company might ordinarily expect to receive. However, my assumption is, given the assiduous care Opera Theatre has devoted to preparing its audience for a revival of this deeply troubling yet majestic work, that the decision to bring this opera to the stage was not made lightly, and certainly not for p.r. purposes. The reason has more to do with the nature of art, and how art acts as a mainstay of civilization.

Art, if it is any good, if it is to be durable, is not always pretty. More often than not, great, enduring works of art present abstract and enigmatic qualities the appreciation of which and the apprehension of which require hard work. Another opera in the Opera Theatre repertory this season -- the disturbing and beautiful "Pelleas and Melisande" is a good example.

Great museums, great theaters and great opera companies build aesthetic muscle by paying attention to essences, to what matters in the pursuit of art making and exhibiting. This business is tough and difficult, not in anyway a sure-fire way to win friends or to make money, and not for the weak of will or spirit. Quality cannot be compromised.

Opera Theatre has grown and flourished in large measure because it maintains such a disposition toward the essentials of presentation and the demands of quality, and presents great operas that challenge us, and sometimes - as in the case of "Klinghoffer" - ask us to question accepted and even cherished beliefs. An appreciation of "The Death of Klinghoffer," or an understanding of a painting such as Picasso's masterpiece "Guernica," requires the listener and viewer to set aside prejudices and to make a effort to understand points of view that may be not only contrary but also odious. Such an exercise, however, builds character.

Opera Theatre was built in large measure by women and men who subscribe to the notion that art, with all powers summoned, is capable of effecting real change over time. The effects may not be immediate or obvious, but moral lessons presented abstractly and subtly in great operas such as "Klinghoffer" become understood and accepted as standards of conduct and behavior, and, put to work as agents of understanding, may eventually effect change. Furthermore, when art confronts darkness and evil directly with light and with goodness, the metamorphosis can be lasting and beneficial to us all.

Why resurrect "Klinghoffer" now?

Simply because, as tensions increase and as positions harden, and the danger of disaster appears more and more often on our screens, more and more imminent, we not only should attend the lessons of "The Death of Klinghoffer," but also, indeed, we must.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.