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Talk about 'Klinghoffer' started early

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2011 - A year ago OTSL general director Timothy O'Leary reached out to 10 interfaith community leaders and invited them to serve on an steering committee to involve the St. Louis community in understanding the opera "The Death of Klinghoffer."

"I was pleased when Tim O' Leary called," said Dr. Ghazala Hayat, a neurologist at Saint Louis University Medical school and the first woman to chair the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. O'Leary provided copies of a British movie version of the opera and explained a little about the local production. The committee's series of meetings resulted in public discussion of the opera. In late May at the Ethical Society, three interfaith leaders led by moderator Gerald Early of Washington U. participated in a public discussion called "A Work that Fires the Heart."

At that time, the Anti-Defamation League released a statement from the daughters of Leon and Marilyn 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."

"Any act of violence is never justified," Hayat said in an interview Thursday. "People who commit acts of terrorism are not functioning at the same frequency as we are. They have their own ideology, their own thought processes, that according to their own ideology they can justify this."

Hayat is just as mystified at how Pol Pot, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge leader, could kill or starve as many as 25 percent of the Cambodian people; how the cult leader Jim Jones could hand out poisonous drinks and get about 900 followers to commit suicide in Jonestown, Guyana; how Timothy McVeigh could justify bombing the Oklahoma City federal building killing 168; or how a gunman could kill six and wound 19, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at a constituents' gathering outside a Tucson grocery.

"We don't have answers," Hayat said.

Many people understand that is a good idea to study drug users and dealers, for example, to see how they reason to help these people and eventually to help society, she said. Talking about other examples of extremism may be helpful.

She was impressed by the audience at the "Fires the Heart" interfaith discussion in May.

"I was not surprised that people were civil over the issue, though many completely disagreed with each other on the (Palestinian-Israeli territorial issues). I always believe that the interfaith community in St. Louis is much more mature and sensitive than most," she said. "I am not sure why but we have people who can sit together and talk about various points of view. That is a first step."

She hopes that O'Leary's effort at reaching out to the interfaith community will become a pilot for other arts groups across the country.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, another panelist at the "Fires the Heart" discussion, also hopes interfaith steering committees might be replicated in other cities over arts projects. "The panel was extraordinarily successful," Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said. "It was typical of our St. Louis interfaith community. We have a connection, really a palpable friendship and trust."

She was moved by the opera on film.

"The power of Marilyn Klinghoffer will never leave me," she said. "In no way is the show pro-terrorism, nor does it excuse terrorists. It makes painfully clear the human cost of terrorism."

A few have complained to her, as the JCRC director, that the opera company has chosen to do an opera on this sensitive topic.

"I asked them, 'Have you seen it?' Invariably they say 'No'," she said.

The interfaith steering committee also helped the opera company arrange for an interfaith event for young people. After the "Klinghoffer" matinee June 21 at 4 p.m. a group of young Jews and Muslims will react in a public session. They are alumni of "Jews And Muslims," better known as JAM. It's an established high school group that meets monthly. That session will be held at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, at 9 S. Bompart Ave., north across Big Bend from the Loretto Hilton Center.

Patricia Rice, a St. Louis freelance journalist, has long written about opera.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.