If you're under 40, you may not know about Leon Klinghoffer, the Jewish-American tourist murdered by Palestinian terrorists aboard an Italian cruise liner, the Achille Lauro. In 1985, this senseless killing of an old disabled man shocked the nation, in part because he was the first American civilian killed by Arab terrorists outside the Middle East.

Composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman chose this event as subject matter for their 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. The hijacking and murder became a platform for a larger meditation on the strife between Jews and Arabs, reaching all the way back to the Old Testament, when Abraham exiled his first-born son, Ishmael (the symbolic patriarch of Arabs).

Because the creators let the characters speak in their own voices without judging them, the opera was condemned after its premiere as pro-terrorist and anti-Semitic. Sporadic attempts to produce it generated enough controversy to scare other companies, including L.A. Opera, into canceling planned performances. Ironically, this opera, while denounced by Leon Klinghoffer's heirs, has probably done more than anything to keep his memory alive.

Now, 22 years after the originally scheduled L.A. premiere, this brooding masterpiece finally reaches Southern California in a haunting production by Long Beach Opera. In director James Robinson's staging, before the first note sounds, an empty wheelchair materializes, accompanied by two offstage gunshots. It's startling, but also reflects the opera's structure around binaries: Palestinians and Israelis, ocean and desert, night and day. ]

This dualism is reflected in Allen Moyer's symmetrical, bleak set designs and in Robinson's staging. Rocks thrown by Palestinians reappear as headstone markers for Holocaust victims. Two boys – one Arab, one Jew (neither in the libretto) – show up throughout the opera as counterbalances.

Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, center; Credit: Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, center; Credit: Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Goodman's poetic libretto, a ritualistic, artistic contemplation of the hijacking, is direct and profound. And Adams' music meets the challenge set by the libretto. In 1991 it was a landmark in his musical evolution: a freer style that expanded his harmonic language and contained the most terrifying music he had ever composed.

Klinghoffer owes more to 20th-century drama – especially Bertolt Brecht's epic theater – than to 19th-century opera. Past and present are juxtaposed. Characters communicate directly to the audience in long monologues instead of onstage dialogue. In this milieu, it is not the unseen death of Klinghoffer that shocks but a shattered teacup several scenes later.

You won't hear a tenor milk a high B-flat in a showstopping aria, but this opera will get under your skin and stay with you for days.

Still, there is some fine singing. As Klinghoffer, Robin Buck's ringing voice and stage demeanor help his character defiantly challenge terrorists yet capture the unearthly transcendence of his post-death prayer. Mezzo Peabody Southwell's bravura vocalizations capture the fervor of the male terrorist she portrays. Danielle Marcelle Bond convincingly plays three different passengers with vocal versatility.

Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), left, and Robin Buck (Leon Klinghoffer); Credit: Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Suzan Hanson (Marilyn Klinghoffer), left, and Robin Buck (Leon Klinghoffer); Credit: Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Contralto Suzan Hanson, as Leon's wife, Marilyn Klinghoffer, gives the performance of the evening. The entire opera funnels to her final aria, a modern mad scene that first rages, then dissipates into a lament. Hanson easily maneuvers through the treacherous phrasings, channeling the widow's fury and heartbreak.

The chorus – crucial to this opera – sings together, energetically and on pitch, although their diction is sometimes fuzzy, and it could use more voices. The orchestra, conducted by the company's artistic director Andreas Mitisek, sounds better than I've ever heard at Long Beach Opera. It's a powerful rendition of a difficult score.

The Death of Klinghoffer, by John Adams and Alice Goodman, is performed again at Long Beach Opera on Saturday, March 22, at 2 p.m.

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