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Interfaith Panel Attempts to Bridge Gap On Social Issues From Klinghoffer To Ferguson

Brian Mulligan as Leon Klinghoffer and Nancy Maultsby as Marilyn Klinghoffer in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 2011 production of The Death of Klinghoffer.
Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis

"The Death of Klinghoffer" drew protests Monday night at its opening in New York. In St. Louis Monday, faith leaders who had worked together in 2011 to create community discussion around the opera met again to consider the experience in light of Ferguson.

They hope past conversations about social issues will inform public response to the shooting death of Michael Brown. These leaders view conversation a way to change the future.

“There is a moment of social transformation that is possible here right now, and if we don’t take and make the best of this moment we may regret it for a long time,” said the Rev. David Greenhaw, president of Eden Thological Seminary. “We have a chance to take some very hard and wrong things and make them better.”

Greenhaw was one of the panelists at the Arts and Faith St. Louis panelFrom Klinghoffer to Ferguson to Beyond. The event, sponsored by the Lee Institute, was Monday night at Ladue Chapel.

Klinghoffer refers to "The Death of Klinghoffer," an opera by John Adams that centers around the murder of hostage Leon Klinghoffer by members of the Palestine Liberation Organization. They had hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship. The opera has been controversial, and especially criticized by Jewish organizations that see the work as sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Prior to its 2011 performance by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the company reached out to faith leaders and started a wide-ranging dialogue on the issues raised by the work. By getting out in front of the controversy, those who took part in these sessions led some who would not normally talk with each other to hear what each had to say.

The musical controversy has flared again with the production of the work by the Metropolitan Opera. David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, leads the Met orchestra in "Klinghoffer."

Those who came together in St. Louis to support conversation and learn from the controversy are coming together again. And this time the subtext begins with Ferguson and the shooting of an unarmed 18 year old by a police officer.

The panelists Monday included the past president of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, Ghazala Hayat, M.D.; the executive director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council, Batya Abramson-Goldstein; Opera Theatre of St. Louis General Director Timothy O’Leary, and the Rev. Starsky Wilson of St. John's United Church of Christ. The discussion was moderated by Robert Duffy, journalist and campaign director of St. Louis Public Radio.

Although the panel was scheduled before the Ferguson protests began, it has evolved to apply the lessons learned from Opera Theatre presentation of “The Death of Klinghoffer” to the current situation. Abramson-Goldstein sees the experience as an opportunity to further the discussion about complicated issues in St. Louis.

“I think in both cases we were dealing with a complex issue, an issue with the capacity to arouse great seditiousness in the community; and what we did was work to bring together the community in a civil and careful way and to reach a better understanding,” she said.

For Greenhaw, these public conversations are acts of “self-conscious community discussion,” conversations held with intentionality and empathy. The talks are about sharing experiences and hearing the voices of people with different opinions.

“We find out that the really important things don’t have simple answers but require deep listening,” said Greenhaw.

Hayat agrees with Greenhaw. Hayat was part of the original conversations surrounding the Opera Theatre’s production. She says listening can lead people of different opinions to investigate shared emotional territory.

“How can we accept the other side has feelings and also the other side is experiencing pain, and find that common ground and then discuss it?” she asked.

Hayat said the conversations orchestrated around Klinghoffer allowed people to view the opera as a piece of art intended to continue dialogue and provide the chance for further interaction. She sees continued interfaith conversation about Ferguson as a chance to instill the same public urge toward dialogue. “I’m much more hopeful that if we start it and continue these talks, we can improve it,” she said.

O’Leary views the conversation as an extension of the relationships developed during those first "Klinghoffer" talks. According to O’Leary, the relationships forged during those initial conversations led to the development of the annual 9/11 Interfaith Commemoration in Music concert and the performance#WithNormandy: A Concert for Peace and Unity. He views the arts and these events in particular as a way to deal engage with the stress and complexity of current issues.

“The challenges we’re experiencing in St. Louis, the trauma the community has been going through is significant,” said O’Leary.

For O’Leary and the rest of the panel’s participants, the chance to engender dialogue and access the shared emotion and humanity that crosses ideological boundaries drives their work.

“I work in the arts because I believe that the arts are an example of human beings at their best,” said O’Leary.