The English National Opera (ENO) is to stage an opera based on the 1985 hijacking of cruise liner the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists. The ENO's director John Berry has branded the opera the "most controversial of the past 50 years".
The 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, composed by John Adams to an English-language libretto by Alice Goodman, has attracted criticism in the US for being one-sided in its portrayal of the circumstances surrounding the incident.
The Palestinian Liberation Front's (PLF) hijacking resulted in the death of Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, whose children attended the opera's US debut and expressed their disapproval.
The opera will be premièred in London next February, and will be directed by Tom Morris, the lauded theatre director brother of Brass Eye satirist Chris Morris, who himself tackled the topic of terrorism in his 2010 film Four Lions.
"It's probably the most controversial opera of the past 50 years," said Berry, who was launching the ENO's 2011-2012 season yesterday. "Many people have cancelled performances of it in the past. Our new season is one of our most ambitious to date. Our performances will show how opera can explain politically-charged issues."
"British talent, led by our brilliant music director Edward Gardner, is at the core of this thought-provoking season. ENO's 2011-2012 season sets out to demonstrate that opera has never been more relevant or accessible."
"One is trying to test the boundaries of what opera is," said Morris, yesterday. "It's an extraordinary composition... it's powerful."
The opera is considered a "meditation on" rather than a dramatisation of Klinghoffer's murder.
After its US debut, the work attracted criticism for being "sympathetic" to the hijackers, as it tries to study the back-story of hijackers and victims. Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled a performance after September 11 out of respect for the families of those killed in attacks on the World Trade Center.
Musicologist and critic Richard Tarusk attacked Adams in The New York Times, labelling him "anti-American, anti-bourgeois and anti-Semitic" and accused him of "romanticising terrorism". In a 2002 interview with The Independent, Adams hit back by denying he was a political composer.
"Classical music is a teeny tiny sliver on the spectrum," he said. "What I do – contemporary classical music – is a minuscule slice of that. I'm very grateful that I can make a living doing it but I don't have a lot of attitude... I make art. I have a lot of friends who are artists and I love the way they talk about it; if you're a woodworker you make a chair, they're artists so they make art."
The ENO's new season features 11 new productions, four of them by living composers.
It also includes the UK premières of Detlev Glanert's Caligula, and The Passenger by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, inspired by a Holocaust survivor who encounters her Auschwitz guard while sailing to Brazil.
The finale of ENO's 2011-12 season will be Damon Albarn's Doctor Dee, directed by Rufus Norris and to be first seen this summer at the Manchester festival.
Morris has recently won plaudits for his direction of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, which premièred at the National Theatre in 2007, before transferring to Broadway.