Controversial opera prompts community outreach, discussion

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

An opera spotlighting one of history’s most high-profile terrorist-related killings is coming to St. Louis next year. 

Considered controversial by some, “The Death of Klinghoffer” is based on events aboard the Achille Lauro, a cruise ship hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, which culminated in the killing of Leon Klinghoffer, 74, a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American thrown overboard by the hijackers.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis is set to stage the piece in June 2011.

“I know you will all remember he was shot for no comprehensible reason and his body and wheelchair were thrown overboard,” said Timothy O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre. “This is a chilling story and not the sort of thing people would normally associate with the art form of opera.”

O’Leary’s remarks were delivered Sept. 14 to a crowded meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which is working with Opera Theatre through the Newmark Institute on a variety of yet-to-be-announced educational events designed to tackle some of the subject matter covered by the production.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the JCRC, said the institute was an appropriate place for discussion of the sensitive topics in “Klinghoffer.”

“When Mr. O’Leary approached us with the fact that this opera was going to be produced, our response was one of, ‘How can we work together to make this production a community building event?'” she said. “It’s a work of art and what we want to do is give it some context, give a forum for honest and respectful conversation about the issues being raised.”

Originally created by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, the opera was first staged in 1991. Occasionally, it has met with controversy amid allegations that it portrays terrorists too sympathetically. A late 2001 Boston performance of the opera’s choruses was cancelled due to the events of Sept. 11.

O’Leary said that modern political topics were not atypical subject matter for Adams, well-known for his work “Nixon in China.”Despite the non-traditional nature of the piece, O’Leary said he has found it very rewarding to be a part of and called it “a great example of art addressing issues of importance to contemporary life.”

“Our mission is to create beauty and community and I believe that one of the roles that the arts can and must perform in our world is to promote a forum for respectful discussion in communities that builds understanding across cultures,” he said. “If ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ sounds like an unusual opera, it is very much in the mission and identity of Opera Theatre to take on this project.”

Some in the Jewish community find the scheduled performance troubling however.

“We have expressed to Opera Theatre our concern that the opera is offensive and reflective of a revisionist approach to history,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois. “We have great concern about outside forces which may impact the way in which the opera ends up being received, notwithstanding Opera Theatre’s intent to be sensitive to the tensions raised by the very existence of the opera.”

Aroesty, who attended the JCRC meeting, said the ADL has longstanding ties to the Klinghoffer family and has been in amicable conversations with Opera Theatre regarding its concerns over the production. She said ADL feared the work could “inflame an already difficult conflict.”

She said the problems begin with the title of the work, which Aroesty felt uses the wrong terminology.

“It’s not the ‘death’ of Klinghoffer,” she said. “It’s the ‘murder’ of Klinghoffer.”

She also expressed concerns about excerpts from interviews with the composer. “I think any argument that Mr. Adams was seeking to be politically neutral is undermined by his own words given in interviews,” she said. “I think there are issues with the libretto, its approach to history and language.”

She cited a passage in 1995 interview with Adams on the opera in which he said, “But in looking at this story, one finds that neither side is beyond reproach. Nor can either side be completely condemned.”

In the same interview, however, Adams calls Klinghoffer a man “crucified for the class of people that he happened to fall into.” He also said he was not condoning the terrorist’s actions, merely examining their circumstances.

“…We didn’t do that, we certainly don’t let the terrorists off the hook morally-they murdered a defenseless old man, after all-but we do try to examine what their backgrounds were, what the forces were that brought them to this moment,” he said.

O’Leary told the JCRC attendees that that was largely the idea behind the work. He said he believed Opera Theatre could produce a performance that it would feel proud to present, even if Klinghoffer’s daughters were in attendance.

“As artists often have to do, we must present the opera dealing carefully with the boundary between depicting an evil action or character and seeming to endorse that action or character,” he said. “This is tricky but we also believe that this is one of the roles of art in our society, not only to delight and entertain but also to ask difficult questions about what is frightening in human kind.”

He said some of the controversy may have been due to what he termed “errors” by its original director in New York, who took an avant garde approach that may have confused the audience. He said he did not feel the work was against the Jewish State. In fact, he noted that its 2003 film version had been banned from a Ramallah film festival for pro-Israeli bias.

O’Leary said the opera has been performed twice in New York since Sept. 11 without incident and to good reviews.

Aroesty said she felt Opera Theatre understood ADL’s concerns and communication between the two organizations were ongoing.

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman, emeritus at Congregation Shaare Emeth and a season ticket holder at Opera Theatre, attended the meeting. Interviewed later, he said that he was familiar with the opera and had even seen the movie based on it.

“It didn’t trouble me because I felt that opera is always designed to get into the minds of the different characters and I think that’s what John Adams tried to do in writing it,” he said. “While sometimes the terrorists are made to seem more human than I think they should be portrayed, that’s what librettists and opera composers do.”

Meeting attendee Kathleen Sitzer, who is also artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre, was impressed with O’Leary’s presentation and said she intends to see the production herself.

“One of the things that spoke to me about what he was saying is that what he is doing is exactly what we do with New Jewish Theatre, which is to use theater, to use dramatic presentation as a way to present difficult subjects to try and create a balanced approach to open dialogue,” she said after the meeting.

David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, did not attend the JCRC meeting but is a Christian representative on the interfaith steering committee that will be directing any future educational events with the JCRC.

“I’m pleased to have an opportunity to call on longstanding friendships and engage the community in what I think will be relatively sensitive conversations about a very terrible and violent act,” he said. “I think art ought to provoke and there is an opportunity with that provocation to engage us in conversation.”

Dr. Ghazala Hayat, a former chairwoman of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, is listed on an Opera Theater press release as a Muslim representative on the committee but she could not be reached for comment as of press time.