‘Klinghoffer’ opera gets SoCal revival

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

Political Fight Wages Over Abbas

The capture of Mohammed "Abu" Abbas may advance the U.S. war on terror, but it also could set off a political time bomb.

Less than a day after U.S. Special Operations Forces in Baghdad nabbed the mastermind of the infamous 1985 Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking, parties ranging from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to Italian authorities to PLO officials fought to influence his fate.

On Wednesday, the ADL called on Attorney General John Ashcroft to bring Abbas to the United States to stand trial for the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American Jewish passenger who was shot after the ship was hijacked. Klinghoffer was then dumped in his wheelchair into the Mediterranean.

The United States should be the country to bring Abbas to justice because "it’s an American citizen who was murdered," argued Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director. "We urge the Department of Justice to seize this moment to strike another blow in this nation’s war on terrorism."

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority demanded that Abbas be freed, saying his arrest violated the Oslo peace accords and subsequent interim deals.

"We demand the United States release Abu Abbas," Palestinian Authority Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters. "It has no right to imprison him."

According to Erekat, the Israeli-Palestinian peace pact, brokered by the United States, said PLO members should not be detained or charged for any terrorist attacks they committed before Sept. 13, 1993.

With apparent American and Israeli approval, Abbas was allowed to return to Palestinian areas several times starting in 1996, and even lived openly in the Gaza Strip for a time.

Israeli officials in the United States could not be reached for comment Wednesday, the eve of Passover.

Meanwhile, Italy — which let Abbas leave the country immediately after the attack rather than fall into U.S. hands and then, in 1986, tried him in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison — pledged to seek his extradition.

"We will have to clarify some legal questions as to whom to request the extradition, which we’ll do as soon as possible," Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli told The Associated Press.

Abbas, 54, head of the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF), a PLO faction, planned the 1985 hijacking of the Italian luxury liner. Four terrorists seized the ship with 410 people aboard off the Egyptian coast.

Abbas later called the killing of Klinghoffer a "mistake," though he also claimed that Klinghoffer was "provoking" other passengers.

Though Abbas was said to have renounced terror, he told the Jerusalem newspaper Al Quds in 1998 that the "struggle between us and Israel does not stop at any limits."

The hijackers shot the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, 69, in the head and chest as his wife, Marilyn, watched, then dumped his body overboard.

Abbas initially won a deal calling for him and his men to be flown from Egypt to safe haven in Tunisia. But Col. Oliver North, an aide to then-President Ronald Reagan, ordered U.S. Navy fighter jets to scramble the EgyptAir flight, and Abbas was forced to land at an airport in Sicily.

A standoff between Italian and U.S. soldiers ensued, with both sides demanding custody of the terrorists. Reagan and then-Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi negotiated a deal in which Italy would try the PLF members.

Two days later, however, Italy said it lacked sufficient evidence to hold Abbas and — arguing that he also held an Iraqi diplomatic passport — let him go. He quickly fled the country.

Abbas reportedly spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s living in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. He moved to Iraq in 1994, one of several terrorist leaders — including the infamous Abu Nidal — for whom Saddam Hussein provided asylum.

After Baghdad fell last week, Abbas traveled to the northern city of Mosul and on to the Syrian border, but Syrian authorities turned him away, the AP reported.

Someone tipped off U.S. officials to Abbas’ whereabouts, and U.S. forces were led to a safe house on the Tigris River south of Baghdad. Special Forces raided the house. Abbas had fled, but they found Lebanese and Yemeni passports, thousands of dollars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and some documents.

Abbas later returned to the city and was captured along with several others.

The White House said it would review the situation, while U.S. military officials signaled they were likely to interrogate Abbas about terrorism.

"Justice will be served," Marine Maj. Brad Bartelt, a Central Command spokesman, told the AP.

World Briefs

Hijack Suspect’s Extradition Sought

Israeli officials are planning to seek the extradition from Turkey of an Israeli Arab who tried to hijack an El Al flight Sunday. According to Israel Radio, attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said Wednesday the extradition request is being drawn up for Tawfik Fukara, who allegedly wanted to crash the plane into a Tel Aviv high-rise. Security officials aboard the Tel Aviv-Ankara flight tackled him when he rushed the cockpit and turned him over to Turkish authorities when the flight safely landed. Turkish television reported that Fukara told authorities he wanted to “make the voice of the Palestinian people heard.” Israeli authorities have said Fukara was inspired by the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Poll: Palestinians Divided OverConflict

Palestinians are divided over whether the conflict with Israel is helping achieve their goals, according to a new poll. Conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, the poll showed 39 percent believe the conflict was helping achieve a Palestinian state. Another 36 percent believe it is not helping and 25 percent have no opinion. The poll of more than 1,000 Palestinians has a margin of error of 3 percent.

Second-Century Artifacts Found

Papyrus scrolls dating to the second-century Jewish rebellion against the Romans were discovered in a Judean desert cave. Researchers from the Hebrew University, Bar Ilan University and Stanford University discovered the scrolls after rappelling into the cave in the Ein Gedi reserve. They also found crude arrowheads and coins bearing the Hebrew name “Shimon,” a reference to the leader of the rebellion against the Roman army, Shimon Bar Kochba. A Hebrew University researcher said the items probably belonged to Jews from the Ein Gedi region who hid in the remote cave to escape the Roman army.

Museum of Tolerance Planned forJerusalem

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is slated to unveil plans for a new $150 million tolerance center in Jerusalem. Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s founder and dean, will be joined Sunday in Jerusalem by architect Frank Gehry, where they will discuss the goals and design of the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. As part of Sunday’s events, the architect’s models for the center will be unveiled at the president’s residence.

UJC Debates Birthright Funding

The umbrella group of North American federations is considering a resolution to pay $39 million to Birthright Israel. At the General Assembly in Philadelphia, the United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) board of trustees debated a resolution Wednesday to pay a share of the program to send 18-26 year olds who have never been to Israel on an organized trip. Currently, 20 percent of federations have not paid for the program, according to Stephen Hoffman, UJC president. The proposed resolution would require all federations to increase their donations to Birthright by 33 percent over last year. The resolution will be voted on within 30 days, Hoffman said. The Jewish Agency for Israel would share in the cost. Meanwhile, UJC voted Wednesday to administer a tax-exempt bond pool for member federations.

New Jersey Rabbi Convicted in MurderTrial

A New Jersey rabbi was convicted for arranging the murder of his wife. Rabbi Fred Neulander could receive the death penalty for hiring two hit men to kill his wife, Carol, in 1994. Wednesday’s verdict came nearly a year after the first trial ended in a hung jury.

Senate Passes Terrorism Insurance Bill

The U.S. Senate passed a bill that would shift most of the insurance costs of terrorist attacks onto the federal government. The bill is expected to result in lower insurance premiums for property and casualty insurance. It is a boon for Jewish federations and other groups that have faced skyrocketing premiums since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The bill, which passed the Senate 86-11 on Tuesday after passing the House last week, provides insurance companies with up to $100 billion in government protection against losses from terrorist attacks. President Bush is expected to sign the legislation next week.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Just the Beginning

This week’s coordinated terror attacks on commercial and governmental sites in New York and Washington have stunned terrorism experts in their scope and sophistication — and prompted dire warnings that more could be in store for American citizens.

Daniel Pipes, who has written frequently on terrorism, said he believes Tuesday’s attacks are only Phase One of a massive assault against the United States.

"There’s an incredible amount of venom in the air against the United States," said Pipes, who is director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank.

Both towers of the World Trade Center collapsed Tuesday, and portions of the Pentagon were destroyed when commercial planes were hijacked and crashed into them.

Another plane crashed outside Pittsburgh, and a fourth crashed into the Pentagon outside Washington, causing part of the building to collapse.

The attacks have been called the worst against the United States since the attack on Pearl Harbor, which prompted the United States to join World War II.

Several Palestinian groups immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to media reports, but it was initially unclear who exactly was responsible.

Suspicion is focusing primarily on Osama bin Laden, the Saudi billionaire who is believed to have masterminded the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and other terrorist incidents around the world.

An official of the ruling Taliban party in Afghanistan, where bin Laden is based, released a statement condemning Tuesday’s attacks.

"We want to tell the American children that Afghanistan feels your pain," said Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. "We hope the courts find justice."

While his people celebrated and distributed candy in the streets, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat condemned the attacks and sent condolences to President Bush.

Bush canceled an appearance in Florida and asked for a moment of silence soon after the attacks in New York.

"I’ve ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and their families, and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act," Bush said. "Terrorism against our nation will not stand."

Terrorism expert Steve Emerson said he did not believe some of the Islamic groups being mentioned as potential masterminds behind the attacks had the ability to mount such a widespread effort.

"No one ever thought a coordinated attack was possible," he said. "They have never demonstrated the capability before."

Emerson called the series of attacks "unfathomable."

"There has been a fundamental mistake looking at this as a criminal problem, when in fact it is a military problem," said Pipes of the Middle East Forum. "You don’t deploy policemen and lawyers. You deploy soldiers."

Pipes said it will be easy to determine what group is responsible for the attacks, because few have the capability. He said he hoped this would be an educational lesson for the United States, but was more cautious than some who believed it would be a turning point for U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

"If today doesn’t have a chemical or biological component, that’s what we have to look for in the future," Pipes said.

In an 1997 article, Emerson said he believed Muslim fundamentalist groups were preparing for a wide-scale attack against the United States.

"In fact, I would say that the infrastructure now exists to carry off 20 simultaneous World Trade Center-type bombings across the United States," Emerson warned in the interview with Middle East Quarterly. "And as chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons become available to them, the threat becomes ever more ominous.

"Just because someone holding a gun to your head doesn’t pull the trigger it should not be understood as the threat not existing," he said. "It would be suicidal to permit our national security to depend on the good will or rationality of radical fundamentalists."

David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the United States should be humble about making predictions regarding who is responsible.

"If, indeed, this is some sort of Islamic terrorism, the short-term impact may be giving the Israeli government more space in its fight against the threats that it faces daily," said Makovsky, former editor of the Jerusalem Post.

"There is no doubt that, at least in the short term, Americans will have a greater appreciation for what Israel has been going through on a daily basis for the last year.”

JTA correspondent Sharon Samber in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

A Swift, Immediate Reaction

Watching the second tower of the World Trade Center crumble into dust on Tuesday, I was able to imagine the horror of the survivors of the Titanic as they witnessed their vessel sink into the Atlantic Ocean. A symbol of human progress and ingenuity, a monument to economic strength and power, the Titanic was regarded as indestructible. So too the World Trade Center represented, more than any other edifice in the United States, America’s sense of its own power and invulnerability. Rising more than 100 stories high, these towers once so effectively dominated the New York skyline that in the air they could be seen from 150 miles away. When a 1993 car bomb failed to destroy them, the sense of invulnerability may have also given way to a sense of complacency.

Yet, fortune does not always smile on its most blessed sons. When terror struck, with a magnitude never experienced before, there was not a citizen in this country who was prepared for it. With thousands of deaths, a shut down of cities and a halt to financial activity throughout the country, it has delivered the kind of paralyzing blow that we only read about in books or see in movies. Never has it been internalized as such a genuine threat to the American way of life.

There are good reasons for this. For two centuries, the United States mainland has stood aloof from depredations in other parts of the world, its stateside population certain in the knowledge that time, distance and deterrence would save it from invasion or attack. But the average U.S. citizen has never reckoned on the reality of foreign suicide bombers who could hijack commercial airplanes and turn them into missiles that target centers of American finance and defense.

Yet the world is changing and with the Sept. 11 hijackings, no one should now doubt that the bombings represent a watershed in history. The attack was correctly characterized by the American president as an attack on freedom. But it is much more than even that. It is an attack on our very concept of humanity and represents a clash of civilizations and worldviews that cannot be bridged through peace talks, appeasement or negotiation.

Just ask the Israelis. Over the past 10 years, they have absorbed scores of suicide bombings. In Israel, a country of six million, the death of 20 people is the equivalent of 3,500 in the United States. The recent frequency of these attacks has pounded its way through the consciousness of a people who no longer believe in Yasser Arafat’s empty gestures of peace, but see him as an aider and abettor of Islamic terror. That was confirmed on Tuesday when television footage showed Palestinians celebrating in the streets of Nablus and Gaza City. The Israeli assessment is identical in tone to what many analysts and commentators on the right have said for years: Muslim extremists and the radical Arab regimes that harbor them represent the gravest peril to safety and security in western civilization.

That being the case there is no time to waste in lengthy debates on the failure of the intelligence agencies or setting limits on the level of retaliation. The U.S. government must act immediately and decisively to close down the offices of Islamic fundamentalist organizations in the United States. It must move to block their financial pipelines by freezing assets; it should identify the bankers of these terrorists and force them to divest. It should make clear to the international community that there is no sitting on the fence in the war against terrorism. You are either a soldier in the war, or you are an enemy. That includes Switzerland, who often acts as a conduit for terrorist funding.

Moreover, those who harbor Islamic fundamentalists and perpetrators of terror should be made to feel the full force of American economic and military retaliation — Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian Authority, to name just a few. It should not be forgotten that even if arch-terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, the most likely culprit of the Tuesday bombings, are eliminated, there will be others to take their place. Emasculating the ability of these terrorists to lord over their global network is the first step in interfering with the kind of intricate logistics that made Tuesday’s bombings possible.

The New York landscape may well have changed, but so has the psychological landscape of the United States. Much like the German sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States stands on the brink of decisive and historic action. But failure to make clear to the rest of the world that this American tragedy is in truth the entire civilized world’s, may hamper this action and give encouragement to the perpetrators of terror.