Opera Theatre director on ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’

By Timothy O’Leary

In 2003, I experienced perhaps the most moving performance I’d ever seen in a theater. I was attending a concert of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In an auditorium with 2,000 other post-September-11th New Yorkers, I remember the stillness and collective emotion at the end of the opera when the singer playing Marilyn Klinghoffer appeared on stage, moments after terrorists murdered her husband. Their cruise aboard the Achille Lauro had been planned to celebrate their 36th anniversary. She sang these words:

We used to sit at home

Together at night

When the children were out.

I wouldn’t glance up

From the book on my lap

For hours at a time,

And yet it was the same

As if I had gazed at him

I knew his face so well;


His beautiful smile.

Never have I felt an audience connect with a character so meaningfully. Sitting in that theater, we knew that each of us were potentially Marilyn Klinghoffer – an ordinary human being who becomes the victim of unimaginable inhumanity. When the performance ended, the stirring ovation was not just for the singers, but for the courage, dignity, and heroism she represented.

A few months earlier, John Adams had won the Pulitzer Prize for a work called “On The Transmigration of Souls,” a musical memorial to September 11th. While it is also a deeply moving piece, there is something about the enormity of an event with such massive loss of life that can make us, unfortunately, numb. Through the story of Leon Klinghoffer – in which a single person is murdered senselessly at the hands of violent extremists – the depth of the tragedy is inescapable.

Sometimes, art’s role is to delight and entertain. Sometimes, it is to make us think about – and feel – important things that can be otherwise hard to deal with. Works for the stage have always been a way to confront what is frightening about humankind through three-dimensional portrayals of characters who do evil – from the “Oresteia” to “Macbeth” to “Dead Man Walking.” This is also the case in “The Death of Klinghoffer,” in which the characters of the Palestinian terrorists tell their story, even while their extremism and their actions are eloquently condemned.

My colleagues at Opera Theatre and I decided to present “The Death of Klinghoffer” because of its power as a work of art with so significant and timely a message. Today, John Adams is increasingly recognized as among the all-time greatest of American composers. Audiences of the St. Louis Symphony and Opera Theatre have been especially crucial to championing his works.

When I began learning more about this opera, I came to understand how controversial it had been at its original U.S. production in 1991, also at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. These performances had the sad coincidence of coming weeks after the tragic riots in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. The atmosphere in the community was tense. Some were concerned that the opera treated the terrorist characters with too much sympathy. In response, John Adams revised the score to eliminate some of what people found problematic.

When I saw the revised opera in 2003, I was surprised that some had had that reaction. It seemed to me that no American audience, especially after September 11th, could think that we were meant to see the terrorists as anything but the murderers they are, whatever their personal histories may be.

Since that 2003 concert, the opera has also increasingly been recognized as a musical masterpiece. A performance at The Juilliard School in 2009 met with tremendous acclaim; the headline in the New York Times read “In a New Generation, a Searing Opera Breaks Free of Polemics.” A film version of the opera has also won awards and appeared in festivals around the world, but it created the most news when it was banned from a festival in Ramallah because Palestinian authorities considered it pro-Israeli.

St. Louis is a special place with an engaged, sophisticated audience, and a tremendous sense of community. Trusting in the sensitivity of the audience has been part of Opera Theatre’s success for more than three decades. It has been a foundation upon which the company has developed an international reputation for quality and innovation. Our intention is to create a staging of this opera with such integrity that its meaning is clear. Together with the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and a committee of interfaith leaders, we have also undertaken a series of educational events designed to help the production inspire the kind of informed, thoughtful dialogue among diverse groups that the arts have a special power to help create.

It is my hope that many in the St. Louis community will take part in this rewarding dialogue, and will come see and hear this beautiful, haunting opera when it is presented this June. Rather than take the opinions of others who have responded to earlier stagings of the work, I encourage you to see this opera for yourself. I believe that you, too, will be moved, just as I was that evening in Brooklyn eight years ago.


Editor’s Note: Based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and the murder of an elderly Jewish wheelchair-bound American passenger, the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” represents a chilling moment in recent history. Later this month, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will present the first U.S. staged production since the 1991 original. Opera Theatre General Director Timothy O’Leary reflects on the meaning of the opera.

Can We Talk? is a new quarterly series from the Jewish Light, the JCC and JCRC, pairing Jewish Light stories, op-eds and editorials and a community discussion event. This point-counterpoint is part of the first Can We Talk? topic, “Culture and Conflict: Jewish Issues in the Arts.” The Light will continue to explore the topic in other June editions.