"The thing is that in The Death of Klinghoffer as in all good operas, every character is depicted as human and is as well-rounded as we are able to make them," says librettist Alice Goodman. "That means, of course, that the Klinghoffers are, the captain of the ship is, and the hijackers of the ship are also - and this was the issue that created a scandal because it was felt that we as a team, and me especially, as I was writing the words, were defending or romanticising terrorism and that we were equating the suffering of the Palestinian people with the murder of Mr Klinghoffer and using the first to justify the second."
The opera - The Death of Klinghoffer - centres on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. The hijackers killed one of the passengers, a retired, wheelchair-bound 69-year-old American Jew named Leon Klinghoffer. Goodman's script imagines what happened on the ship.
The English National Opera (ENO) is putting on seven performances of the opera at the London Coliseum over two weeks. It is being directed by Tom Morris, best known as the co-director of The National Theatre's smash-hit adaptation of War Horse and helming the controversial musical satire Jerry Springer: The Opera.
Originally opening in Brussels in 1991, the opera courted controversy even before a single note of John Adam's music was heard. Critics condemned the artistic merit of the play, questioning whether art should be made out of a tragic incident.
ENO conductor Baldur Bronnimann argues: "The one thing that makes the piece standout is that it's about recent events, which is a thing that used to happen in opera quite a lot. Operas in the past would often take something that was maybe a bit controversial at the time and use it as a starting point. People are not used to seeing this reality on an opera stage anymore. Sometimes I think people go to the opera to get away from that, and I think that is really quite important because for me as a musician I know that every opera at one time was contemporary and they used to cause riots. Of course, you don't have that these days because the pieces are much older but it's important to realise that music is relevant and it's not just about hearing a few nice tunes."
When the play transferred to the US, the protests grew louder, with Jewish groups picketing all the performances in the autumn of 1992 at the San Francisco Opera. Shortly after, the Los Angeles Music Centre Opera cancelled a planned series of performances without explanation. It took almost two decades before American audiences were given the chance to see the opera performed again. Its British debut in 2001 was followed by a dramatised Channel 4 production by Penny Woolcock in 2003.
The latest ENO production opens on Saturday, and Goodman, who is now a Church of England priest based in Cambridgeshire, says of her depictions of the protagonists: "First of all, when I write characters I write them about human beings. I can't do it any other way. I'm a writer - it's what we do. I don't want to do it any other way because it's not good art when you just have cardboard villains and you demonise people. So one of the things you have to do is to imagine yourself in the other person's heart and imagination. I think that if you need to imagine yourself into the other situation even if that person hates you and wants to kill you is what maturity is all about."
Bronnimann argues that such is the even-handedness of the piece that even the music has an air of neutrality. "The music doesn't want to take sides- it's a reflective piece and there is a lot of lyrical music. The picture of the ocean is always there, even if the music is really agitated or we are showing the scenes of the hijack, it always goes back to the ocean, which gives the scenes a reflective character. I think that's also done because Adams didn't want to be too sensationalist about it. It's like the piece says, don't make your mind up too fast, give it another thought."
Goodman, who has attended a couple of rehearsals, says the director Tom Morris is bringing a more naturalistic approach to the piece. The British press has already been publishing stories on planned protests against the play. Bronnimann argues that the opera should be watched first before decisions about its merits are made and it's the job of artists to raise questions. He adds: "You cannot say something is romanticising terrorism just because you show terrorists on stage. Opera doesn't automatically romanticise, and this opera doesn't make any excuses for the killing. It's important that artists do not veer away from dealing with the Middle East."
The English National Opera's performance of The Death of Klinghoffer opens on Saturday and continues until March 9