Long Beach Opera tackles controversy with ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’

Lee Gregory as the Captain with the cast in a rehearsal of "The Death of Klinghoffer" by Long Beach Opera.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

It is an opera that like its choruses rouses recriminations and unsettled ghosts.

“The Death of Klinghoffer” by composer John Adams sets the Israeli-Palestinian struggle on a ship sailing with the histories and opposing realities of two peoples bound by the rage and agony of an unreconciled land. The opera, based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian militants who killed Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American Jew, is also a deeper meditation on nationalist passions that for ages have set alight the world’s conflicts.

Since its premiere in Brussels in 1991, the opera has been denounced by some Jewish groups as pretentious, anti-Semitic and sympathetic to Palestinians. Those sensitivities have kept many companies away. Los Angeles Opera, one of the work’s co-commissioners, has yet to stage it. But with chutzpah and a bit of brio, the Long Beach Opera on Sunday will perform “Klinghoffer,” which it calls “perhaps the most controversial opera of the 20th century.” It will be the first staging of the opera in Southern California.

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“It’s an incredibly moving piece,” said Andreas Mitisek, artistic and general director of the Long Beach troupe, which relishes provocative works. “We are not here to take political sides. We are here to present art. It’s not a documentary. It’s about the human experience and the suffering that” arises from deep-rooted animosities. He added: “I find it important to pick works that have relevance.”


The work is directed by James Robinson, who staged a production by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2011, which came nearly 20 years after the last U.S. performance in San Francisco. As a prelude to Sunday’s show, the Long Beach company sponsored an interfaith discussion of the work at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. A rabbi, an Islamic cleric and a Christian minister guided the talk.

“It’s such a raw subject,” said Mitisek. “But it was a positive talk.”

Berkeley-based John Adams is one of America’s most important composers. His operas peel into seminal moments and explore pivotal personalities, including “Doctor Atomic,” the tale of Robert Oppenheimer and the invention of the nuclear bomb, and “Nixon in China,” the story of President Nixon’s 1972 gamble-of-a-trip to meet Mao Tse-tung. But since it first appeared, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” with a libretto by Alice Goodman, has been a flash point, a two-act drama of words and music that seeps into centuries-old politics and religion.

The world has changed much in two decades: the Cold War dissolved in echoes, Sept. 11, 2001 redefined the specter of global terrorism and Arab upheavals swept away dictators. But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a perpetual crisis of failed peace talks, expanding Jewish settlements and militant attacks.

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“Nobody could have imagined 30 years ago that the situation in Palestine could have been so much worse,” said Peter Sellars, who directed the work’s world premiere and has frequently collaborated with Adams. “The desperation of people is shocking.... The [opera] becomes more powerful now than when it was new. It speaks to something that can’t be communicated in a headline.”

Writing about the Middle East — be it poem, opera or news story — is held up to passions and prejudices older than the Bible. Narratives are fixed in stone; troubled histories are distilled into vigilance. The often repeated wisdom, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, is more than a piquant turn of phrase, making the rancor between Arab and Jew perhaps the most notated struggle in a world rife with political injustices.


“That kind of intractable conflict is not something the Palestinians and Israelis own,” said Adams. “It’s present in the Crimea (Ukraine) today and was part of the American Civil War.” He called Israel an “apartheid state” whose message was controlled by powerful lobbying groups “determined to keep their version of the narrative in their direction.” He condemned terrorism, saying “it is a last ditch tool. It is the weapon of the powerless.”

He said “Klinghoffer” dealt with universal questions and should not be co-opted by political forces: “My piece is a work of poetry and music.... It is not agitprop in any way.”

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Adams was reluctant to revisit the furor around a work — layered harmonies and intricate score of post-minimalism — in which both sides are sensitive to their depictions. The opera, which conjures both Bach oratorios and Greek tragedy, dedicates about 50 minutes to separate Jewish and Palestinian choruses that hauntingly recount the histories that brought them to bloodshed over the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.

The hijackers took the Achille Lauro passengers, including the wheelchair bound Klinghoffer, hostage and demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Klinghoffer was shot and dumped overboard. The Long Beach production, as with others, portrays his death offstage.

“I’m very skeptical of reminiscing. As soon as it was known that I was making this opera I got strong reactions,” Adams said, adding that Palestinians “thought it would be another damning critique of the Palestinian position. Jews were angry about the beginning Palestinian chorus that sings, ‘Our faith will take the stones he broke and break his teeth.’ … I did not anticipate the level of personal attack against me.”


Detractors and Jewish groups argued that the opera was empathetic to terrorists by conjuring Palestinians forced from their homes by armed Jews. Some critics took issue with the humanizing of the four Palestine Liberation Front gunmen, one of whom speaks of oppression and the seeds of hate. One scene, cut after its 1991 premiere because it was deemed too provocative, homed in on a frivolous American Jewish family oblivious to the darker themes an ocean away.

After attending a performance of the opera in 1991, Klinghoffer’s daughters, Ilsa and Lisa, who live in New York, said: “While we understand artistic license … the juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the cold-blooded murder of an innocent, disabled American Jew is both historically naive and appalling.”

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, canceled performing parts of the opera to “err on the side of being sensitive.” Writing in the New York Times that same year, Richard Taruskin, a music professor at UC Berkeley, suggested that “Klinghoffer” romanticized “terrorists as Robin Hoods” and idealized “their deeds as rough poetic justice.”

Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2012 — after a performance by the English National Opera in London — that the score was “intense and moving” and that the “controversy was that Goodman’s spectacularly literary libretto permitted Palestinian principles to be expressed with the eloquence of great Arab poetry. The opera’s terrorists can display unspeakable brutality yet appreciate beauty.”

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Following the Long Beach production, which stars Robin Buck, Suzan Hanson and Jason Switzer, “Klinghoffer” will be staged for the first time by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in October. The work will be directed by Tom Morris.


The opera may eventually find its way to L.A. Opera’s stage. “We’re in ongoing discussions with John Adams about his long-awaited return to the company,” said Christopher Koelsch, the company’s president and chief executive. “ ‘Klinghoffer’ is one of a number of projects we’re considering.”

When a work has been around “for a couple of decades you can’t baby-sit it. You have to let people do their thing with it,” said Adams. “Most people who take up ‘Klinghoffer’ are very serious about it. I respect and admire anyone who takes it on.” He added that it can take a while before a controversial work is embraced by companies to reach wider audiences.

“As we composers have learned, we have to wait,” he said. “We just have to stay alive.”


‘The Death of Klinghoffer’

Where: Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: 7 p.m. Sun. and 2 p.m. March 22

Admission: $29-$160

Information:; (562) 432.5934