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It's been two decades since the opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" has been performed on an American stage. That should come as no surprise, given the rancor stirred by its 1991 U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But it's back at Opera Theater of St. Louis for the next week.
Jim Dryden reports that its revival has tried to address some of the concerns raised by its controversial debut.
JIM DRYDEN: Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, were celebrating their wedding anniversary aboard the Achille Lauro, when Palestinian terrorists hijacked the ship off the coast of Egypt. The following day, they shot Klinghoffer as he sat in his wheelchair, then threw his body overboard.
Six years later, composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman completed an opera based on those events.
Mr. AUBREY ALLICOCK (Singer): (as Mahmoud) (Singing) This is a demonstration asking for liberation our 50 companions held in Israeli prisons.
DRYDEN: John Adams says from the start he expected some controversy.
Mr. JOHN ADAMS (Composer): We were not naive. We knew that choosing this theme was going to be a hot potato. You know, the opera was first performed in Belgium and then in France, and the reaction actually was sort of tepid. And I was mostly concerned I'd written a piece that hadn't made any impact. But then when it came to the United States, it became a real flashpoint for some very, very bitter debate.
DRYDEN: Some critics and audience members thought it was too sympathetic to the hijackers. The Klinghoffers' daughters wrote a letter condemning it.
Originally commissioned by six opera companies, two of them dropped out. So when Opera Theatre of St. Louis General Director Timothy O'Leary, decided he wanted to present the work, he knew he had to handle it differently. As a first step, O'Leary contacted community leaders, including Batya Abramson-Goldstein, who directs the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Ms. BATYA ABRAMSON-GOLDSTEIN (Director, Jewish Community Relations Council): The question was never: Should Opera Theatre put on this opera? The question I was asked was: Since the opera is being put on, are there ways that we might work together to make what plays out in St. Louis different?
DRYDEN: Abramson-Goldstein and other community leaders participated in interfaith discussions. Public TV Station KETC recorded one for broadcast that included Muslim physician Ghazala Hayat.
Dr. GHAZALA HAYAT (Physician): Art, if it's not for propaganda, it just tells you what every character is feeling - at least they want you to be in their shoes. And the more you're going to get into their shoes, I think, that's the strength of that art.
DRYDEN: The consensus that has seemed to have emerge from the discussions is that, although "The Death of Klinghoffer" presents many perspectives, it does not excuse the murder of Leon Klinghoffer or any former terrorist.
(Soundbite of chorus in opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer")
DRYDEN: Michael Christie is conducting the St. Louis production, and he says it delivers its message subtly.
Mr. MICHAEL CHRISTIE (Conductor): I just never feel like there's a sledgehammer here, you know, with a point of view. It makes me want to know more, and it makes me want to know more about how I feel about the emotions that people feel when they experience these kinds of things. But I never feel crushed by it.
DRYDEN: In one key scene, the captain of the hijacked ship tries to talk with one of the hijackers named Mamoud.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER MAGIERA (Singer): (as The Captain) (Singing) My mother who could not remember what happened to her, she only said there was a raid.
DRYDEN: Composer John Adams says the talk doesn't really lead anywhere.
Mr. ADAMS: After this long conversation, the captain sort of blandly and naively says, I think if you could talk like this sitting among your enemies, peace would come. And Mamoud, who's grown up in a horrible Palestinian refugee camp and has had a life with no hope, responds: The day that I and my enemies sit peacefully, each putting his case and working towards peace, that day our hope dies and I shall die, too.
Mr. ALLICOCK: (as Mahmoud) (Singing) The day that I and my enemies sit peacefully, each putting his case and working towards peace, that day our hope dies. And I shall die, too.
DRYDEN: Adams says the tragedy of the opera is that the Klinghoffers were caught between two historical forces that continue to collide. And that makes the work just as relevant as it was 20 years ago.
Mr. ADAMS: It's wrong to try to focus the opera entirely on that event. I mean, these people became victims of racial hatred that is as old as the "Old Testament." So we're dealing, right from the start with collisions of vast numbers of people and historical narratives, down to the marriage of a couple of Americans who've lived in New Jersey and they're taking a trip to the Holy Land.
DRYDEN: There seems to be renewed interest in "The Death of Klinghoffer," despite its difficult subject matter. After its St. Louis run, there will be another new production in London next year.
For NPR News, I'm Jim Dryden in St. Louis.
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