On Oct. 7, 1985, Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer were celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary onboard the Achille Lauro cruise ship. Leon, 69, retired andin a wheelchair, and his 58-year-old wife, who was in remission from cancer, had a lot to be thankful for, including their two daughters, Ilsa and Lisa.
But the celebration turned into a nightmare when four Palestinian terrorists hijacked the liner and shot the outspoken American Jewish man, dumping his body into the ocean.
From this tragedy, composer John Adams wrote his second opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” along with librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars. It opened in 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to a hail of criticism, accusing the creators of caricaturing Jewish life and sympathizing with the terrorists.
After a 1992 San Francisco production was met with protests, “Klinghoffer” did not appear fully staged again in the United States until 2011. That new production, directed by James Robinson, was well-received for the Opera Theater of St. Louis, which specializes in reviving neglected modern works, including Adams’ first opera, “Nixon in China.”
Now, courtesy of Long Beach Opera and music director Andreas Mitisek, “The Death of Klinghoffer” makes its belated Southern California debut on March 16 at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach.
“The opera’s had a tortured history,” Robinson, who directs this production as well, said during a break in rehearsals. “Adams took out a controversial prologue set in New Jersey, and there were other nips and tucks, including making the electronic component within the orchestra more user-friendly.”
Though this new “Klinghoffer” remains close to the original work, Robinson said no protests or threats interrupted its successful run in St. Louis. In fact, after one performance, Adams received a huge ovation.
“He was treated like a hero,” Robinson said. “Sometimes it just takes a while before the smoke clears a bit and we can see what the actual piece is about.”
In October, “Klinghoffer” will get its Metropolitan Opera in New York debut, and it is scheduled for broadcast to movie theaters in November as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series.
Robinson said there has been “a little pushback” from the Anti-Defamation League, on behalf of the Klinghoffer family. “But we present the piece as a work of art,” he said. “It’s a significant contribution to the American opera repertoire.”
Music director Mitisek agreed. “I’m sensitive to the feelings the two daughters have,” Mitisek said. “I wish they would see this work in a different light, because as an opera, it makes things understandable beyond the intellect. As tragic as it is, it allows us to have a better understanding of what courage means.”
Mitisek described the Klinghoffers as ordinary people forced to courageously deal with extraordinary circumstances. He called the work’s last scene, where Marilyn reflects on her life with her husband, “one of the most moving in opera.”
Soprano Suzan Hanson, who portrays Marilyn, has taken on challenging and grueling roles for Long Beach Opera before, including Medea and Lady Macbeth. But this one, she said, is somehow more fatiguing.
“She was a real person,” Hanson said. “My mind boggles thinking about her leaving the ship without her husband. How do you do that? She’s heroic in this opera — a strong and caring person who battled all the way and admired her husband’s ability to keep going after his stroke. Her words are poetic and profound.”
Marilyn died in February 1986, four months after her husband’s murder. Hanson said the stress of the tragedy probably brought on her final illness.
Baritone Robin Buck, who plays Leon, said he also feels unusually close to his character. “I want to do justice to the memory of this person,” he said. “The terrorists chose the one person who was the least threat to them. Klinghoffer was a warm, generous man. Heroes are that way: ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”
Klinghoffer worked from an early age after losing his father, Buck pointed out. “He had a tough upbringing, and that had a lot to do with his tenacity in dealing with his physical limitations, and subsequently with the terrorists on the Achille Lauro.” Singing Klinghoffer’s aria is, therefore, “a great responsibility. It’s so beautiful and transcendent, not of this world. It’s one of the most moving arias ever written.”
Klinghoffer’s other aria denounces the actions of the terrorists. “He spoke his truth,” Buck said. “He refused to be silent.”
But the terrorists also get to have their say in “Klinghoffer.” American baritone Jason Switzer said rehearsing the role of Mamoud, the most eloquent and death-devoted of the terrorists, has not been easy. One reason: Switzer is Jewish.
“Mamoud spews anti-Semitic remarks,” Switzer said in an interview, “all the things that Palestinian terrorists would say. We’re talking about a 1985 event. The PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] was still calling for the destruction of Israel.”
Switzer was careful to point out that Goodman’s libretto is not anti-Semitic, and that the opera does not justify extremism or romanticize the terrorists.
“I saw a humanization of both sides,” he said. “The terrorists are human beings who commit inhuman acts. But I’m strongly in support of Israel, and here I’m playing someone who wants to wipe it out. It’s one of the most difficult roles I’ve ever taken, but I understand it better than a lot of people, knowing the history of the region.”
Switzer added, “Opera has a history of tackling very different social and political issues, and ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ is as relevant to our times as any you’ll find.”
“The Death of Klinghoffer” will be performed March 16 at 7 p.m. and March 22 at 2 p.m. Long Beach Opera, Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. Long Beach. For ticket information, visit longbeachopera.org.