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Episode 9: Batya Abramson-Goldstein and Timothy O’Leary

Showing how art can be a vehicle for interfaith understanding is a key element of MOCRA’s mission. But MOCRA isn’t the only arts institution exploring that possibility. In this two-part episode, MOCRA Assistant Director David Brinker speaks with Batya Abramson-Goldstein, Executive Director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council, and Timothy O’Leary, General Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Part 1 focuses on Opera Theatre’s 2011 production of the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer, and how that opera became a springboard for interfaith conversation and action through the arts.

In Part 2, Ambramson-Goldstein and O’Leary discuss the genesis of an interfaith September 11 memorial service, and other lasting positive consequences of the interfaith collaboration that began with The Death of Klinghoffer.

Scroll down for a Listening Guide to the conversation.

Part 1

Part 2

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Credits

Producer: David Brinker
Recording Engineer and Editor: Mike Schrand
Host: Linda Kennedy
Theme and Incidental Music: Stephen James Neale
Listening Guide: David Brinker

Background

Batya Abramson-GoldsteinBatya Abramson-Goldstein was appointed Executive Director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), effective January 1, 2003. She joined the JCRC in November of 1988 as Director of International Affairs and was appointed Associate Executive Director in 1992.

Her innovative program initiatives include the Riga Sister Community project linking St. Louis with the Jewish community in Riga, Latvia, and the JCRC’s Student to Student Program, which reduces prejudice by bringing Jewish high school students to schools in the Greater St. Louis area that lack a Jewish presence. Abramson-Goldstein believes deeply in the power of dialogue and relationship building. She is chair of the Interfaith Breakfast Dialogue Group, the oldest existing such group in the country. She is co-founder and co-chair of the Eden Theological Seminary/JCRC Christian/Jewish Dialogue group, initiated in 2007, and was a prime mover in the development of the JCRC's Sidney and Anna Frager Jewish/Muslim Teen Dialogue Group as well as the Hispanic/Jewish Dialogue Group, Shalom Amigos. She sits on the Cabinet of Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls and is a past Chair. Through JCRC’s Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations, Batya worked with Opera Theatre of St. Louis on educational programming regarding the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer, a collaboration which led to her engagement in the development of the group Arts & Faith St. Louis and its inaugural production, “An Interfaith Memorial in Music,” commemorating September 11, 2001.

Abramson-Goldstein has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Jewish Federation’s Fred A. Goldstein Memorial Service Award (1993), Fontbonne University’s Jason Sommer Dedicated Semester Award (2008), the Eden Theological Seminary Interfaith Award (2009). Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Wall’s Interfaith Leader of the Year Award (2012), and the Hellenic Society’s Athena Award (2012).

Since this interview took place, Abramson-Goldstein retired from her role at the JCRC in 2015. She continues her active involvement with Arts & Faith St. Louis.

 


Timothy O'LearyTimothy O’Leary has been General Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis since 2008, overseeing all institutional and artistic matters for the company. During O’Leary’s tenure, Opera Theatre has continued to earn international acclaim for its innovative programming and has achieved sustained growth in new audiences. Under his leadership, Opera Theatre launched its New Works, Bold Voices series in 2013, a cycle of world premiere American operas that embrace diverse cultural and musical influences and tell stories of the modern era. Also during O’Leary’s tenure, Opera Theatre has continued to present important but under-produced works, such as the first new North American production of John Adams’ landmark opera The Death of Klinghoffer since its original 1991 staging.

Prior to his appointment as General Director, O’Leary served as Opera Theatre’s Executive Director, working together with outgoing General Director Charles MacKay. Previously, he was part of the senior management team at New York City Opera, and was the first Managing Director of New York’s celebrated Gotham Chamber Opera. He has also worked as a staff stage director for companies including New York City Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Florida Grand Opera, and others. His training includes an apprenticeship with San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program, graduate studies at Columbia University in Theatre Management, and an undergraduate degree in English and Drama from Dartmouth College. O’Leary serves as treasurer of the board of OPERA America, the national service organization for opera, and was also recently selected as one of 100 arts CEOs worldwide for National Arts Strategies’ “Chief Executive Program,” which included training at the business schools of the University of Michigan and Harvard University.

Since this interview, O’Leary left Opera Theatre to become General Director of Washington National Opera in July 2018.

 

Listening Guide: Part 1

Jump to the Listening Guide for Part 2

 
00:55

John Adams (b. 1947) is among the most highly regarded and prolific of contemporary American composers. His music is frequently described as minimalist or post-minimalist—styles marked by pulsating, repeated musical figures—but he incorporates other stylistic references as well. He has composed works for orchestra, choral works, and operas, and is also a respected conductor and writer. Visit John Adams’ website for more information about his life and work and links to recordings and writings.

Achille Lauro setting sail

The MS Achille Lauro heading out of Port Said, Egypt, October 13, 1985, four days after the
passengers were released by Palestinian hijackers. Michel Lipchitz/AP

The John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer concerns the October 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by four members of the Palestine Liberation Front. The opera was originally commissioned through a consortium of five opera companies, with the first performance taking place on March 19, 1991, at the Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium. The first US performance followed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 5, 1991. Read a history of the opera and its productions here

The original production was directed by Peter Sellars (b. 1957), an American theater director noted for his distinctive contemporary stagings of classical and contemporary operas and plays. Sellars has been on the cutting edge of cultural activism, using performance art to explore challenging moral issues such as war, poverty, and the international refugee crisis. 

Read a PBS interview with Sellars about art and the transcendent, or watch a 2013 interview:

03:00

James Robinson is Artistic Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Regarded as one of America’s most inventive stage directors of both the standard repertory to seldom performed works, he is considered the most widely performed director of opera in North America. In addition to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Robinson has staged productions for New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Canadian Opera Company, San Francisco Opera, and Seattle Opera.

Nixon in China is a 1987 John Adams opera, with libretto by Alice Goodman and directed by Peter Sellars, based on President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972

American poet and Anglican priest Alice Goodman (b. 1958) also wrote the libretto for The Death of Klinghoffer. Learn more about the devastating impact of that opera on Goodman personally and professionally in this 2012 interview with The Guardian.   

04:25

The Crown Heights riots were sparked on August 19, 1991, by the accidental death of a Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old black boy who was run over by a Hasidic Jewish driver named Yosef Lifsh. Rumors spread and long-simmering tensions in this Brooklyn neighborhood exploded in three days of rioting that also claimed the life of 29-year-old Australian student Yankel Rosenbaum. Follow a New York Daily News timeline of the riots, or read a reflection on the state of the Crown Heights neighborhood twenty years after the riots in this 2011 New Yorker article. New York’s News 4 visited the neighborhood in 2013:

06:30 Read the statement by Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer about Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ production of The Death of Klinghoffer.
09:00

On the Transmigration of Souls is a 2002 concert work for chorus and orchestra by John Adams, commissioned by The New York Philharmonic for the first anniversary of September 11, 2001. The text is comprised brief fragments taken from missing-person signs that had been posted by friends and family members in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, personal reminiscences (drawn principally from interviews appearing in The New York Times “Portraits of Grief” series), and a randomly chosen list of names of the victims. Watch an interview with Adams speaking about the piece:

12:23

Penny Woolcock (b. 1950) is a British filmmaker, opera director, and screenwriter. She directed a British television version of The Death of Klinghoffer for the BBC, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adams. The soundtrack was recorded in 2001, the telecast aired in 2003, and a DVD was released on Decca in 2004. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the 2003 Brussels European Film Festival and the 2003 Prix Italia.

14:30 Florida pastor Terry Jones (b. 1951) made headlines multiple times for his threatened—and occasionally implemented—plans to burn copies of the Koran, ostensibly in memory of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. While he backed down from his planned action in September 2010, his burning of a Koran in March 2011 led to retaliatory protests and attacks in Afghanistan. Jones was arrested in September 2013 as he prepared to burn 2,998 copies of the Koran.     
15:00 Duff’s Restaurant operated in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis from 1972 until June 2013. It was popular not just for its food and ambience but also as a meeting place for the St. Louis literary community. Read an article on the Duff's legacy, and learn more about the St. Louis literary society River Styx, which held readings monthly at Duff's.
18:00

The Jewish Community Relations Council (founded in 1938 as the Jewish Coordinating Council and adopting its current name in 1945), has five focus areas: Israel, International Issues, Domestic Issues, Social Justice and Intergroup Relations. Learn more about the JCRC here.

The Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations “is committed to the concept of a pluralistic society where diverse religious, racial, and ethnic groups live and work together and their differences enhance the community.” The Institute aims to

  • Celebrate occasions that promote diversity.
  • Educate about the differences of people of diverse backgrounds through dialogue and other means.
    Cooperate and network in common cause with others on issues that support one another, as well as on issues for the common good.
  • Advocate positions and support programs that promote civil and human rights and the inalienable dignity of the human person, and that combat bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, and abuses based on differences in religion, race, ethnic background, or sexual preferences.
25:15

O’Leary refers to a review penned by Katrine Ames that appeared in Newsweek

Read a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the panel discussion “‘A Work that Fires the Heart”: Exploring Darkness and Light in The Death of Klinghoffer.”

The St. Louis Jewish Light published a number of items related to The Death of Klinghoffer and related programming.

Watch an excerpt from the “Can We Talk?: Conflict and Culture” panel discussion:

28:50 

Dr. David Greenhaw serves at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis as both President of the Seminary and Professor of Preaching and Worship. He is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ with joint partner standing with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Dr. Sarita Cargas presently teaches at the Honors College of the University of New Mexico. She hold both a D.Phil and an Mst in the Study of Religion from Oxford University, as well as an MA in Theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, an MA in Psychology from Georgetown University, and a BA from St. John’s College (Annapolis). Her teaching and research interest is human rights with an additional focus on explicitly teaching critical thinking.

Dr. Ghazala Hayat sits on the public relations committee of Islamic foundation of Greater St. Louis. She is a Professor at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, where she is Director of Neurophysiology and Neuromuscular Services and the Director of Neurophysiology Fellowship. Watch a presentation by Dr. Hayat as part of the MOCRA Voices episode So That You Know Each Other: Intercultural Reflections on Art, Beauty, and Islam.

The Sidney and Anna Frager Jewish/Muslim Teen Dialogue group (a.k.a. “JAM”: Jews and Muslims) has developed into a deeply rooted collaboration between the St. Louis JCRC and the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis. Participants include twelve Jewish teens and twevle Muslim teens from diverse backgrounds. The group’s goals are:

  • To engage Jewish and Muslim teens in a meaningful interaction.
  • To increase understanding of each other's religion, values, and culture.
  • To engage Jewish and Muslim teens in a dialogue regarding their faith, culture, and values.
  • To reduce prejudices among Jewish and Muslim teens through finding a common ground and learning about each other through personal encounters.
  • To develop tomorrow's leadership that will have a greater understanding of each other's community and that will have the skills to dialogue and collaborate.
  • To increase communication, understanding, and collaboration between the Muslim and the Jewish communities of St. Louis.
30:30 Read Sarah Bryan Miller’s review of The Death of Klinghoffer at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.     
33:30 While bashert means “destiny” in Yiddish, it also has various layers of meaning. In the context of relationships and marriage, for instance, it is used to describe finding one’s soulmate.     
39:03  Learn more about Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis.     
43:40

The Metropolitan Opera presented The Death of Klinghoffer in Fall 2014. Watch the official trailer:

On June 17, 2014, the Met announced a decision to cancel a planned November 15, 2014 simulcast of the production to cinemas worldwide, reinvigorating the longstanding tensions surrounding the opera. Read more about that decision.
45:25  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro premiered in 1786.     
 

Listening Guide, Part 2

 
00:20

Arts & Faith St. Louis is premised on these beliefs:

  • The arts have a unique power to inspire thoughtful discussion among diverse audiences, to bring people together, and to bridge divides through shared experiences.
  • There are issues that would benefit from considered collaboration between the arts and the faith community. There is no other organized, ongoing activity elsewhere in our community with this focus.
  • This process of collaboration will build on the St. Louis community's traditions of strong interfaith and inter-group collaboration, mutual respect among diverse groups, and civility in public discourse.
03:40
Finale of the first Interfaith Memorial in Music

Performers gathered on the Sheldon Concert Hall stage for the finale of the inaugural Interfaith Memorial in Music on September 11, 2011.

The first Interfaith Memorial in Music took place at the Sheldon Concert Hall on September 11, 2011.

Explore other Interfaith Concerts here.

Learn more about soprano Christine Brewer and pianist Peter Martin.

Peter Martin performs in the Sheldon Concert Hall to celebrate the Sheldon’s new brand launch in 2020.

Rev. John C. Danforth (b. 1936) served as Senator from Missouri from 1976 to 1995 and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2005. He is also an Episcopalian Priest. The John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis maintains an online journal called Religion & Politics, which is “dedicated to the two topics thought unfit for polite company.” It includes articles from journalists and scholars on topics such as Bioethics, Civil Liberties, Culture, Education, Elections, Foreign Policy, Law & Order, Media, Money, Science, and Sexuality & Gender. 

08:40

The Sheldon Concert Hall was designed by the noted 1904 World’s Fair architect Louis C. Spiering. It opened in 1912 as the home of the Ethical Society of St. Louis (it was named after Walter Sheldon who founded the St. Louis branch of the Ethical Society). While numerous luminaries have spoken from the stage, including Margaret Mead, Thurgood Marshall, and R. Buckminster Fuller, the hall is best known for its acoustic perfection, earning the hall the title, “The Carnegie Hall of the Midwest.” The Ethical Society relocated to St. Louis County in 1964, but the hall continued as a venue for concert programs and community activities.

The non-profit Sheldon Arts Foundation was formed in 1988 and purchased the facility in 1991 to preserve the venue as one of St. Louis' important cultural resources. Paul Reuter served as Executive Director from 1994–2018, overseeing major renovations and additions, including an Annex that houses the 7,000 square foot Sheldon Art Galleries. 

15:30 David Halen is Concertmaster and Eloise and Oscar Johnson, Jr. Chair of the Saint Louis Symphony.
19:00

Cultural journalist Robert W. Duffy was Associate Editor of the online news organization St. Louis Beacon at the time of his reflections on the first Interfaith Memorial in Music. He included further musings in a preview of the 2013 interfaith concert.   

21:15

Carolyn Losos is a longtime civic and cultural leader in St. Louis. Among other positions and appointments, she served as one of fifteen commissioners on the Regional Arts Commission from its inception in 1986 through 2011. She serves as Senior Consultant to FOCUS St. Louis, a civic organization for which she served as interim director. Previously she was the executive director of the Leadership Center of Greater St. Louis, and for seventeen years, she directed the Leadership St. Louis® Program. Watch as Losos discusses important qualities in a leader:    

Mont Levy retired in December 2018 after serving more than twenty years as a wealth advisor at Buckingham Wealth Strategies and member of the firm’s Executive Committee. He previously worked as vice president of finance and administration at Grand Center, Inc. – a nonprofit arts & entertainment urban development organization in St. Louis. Levy was appointed chair of the Regional Arts Commission’s board in 2018. He also sits on numerous other boards including Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, Arts & Faith St. Louis, and the American Jewish Committee, where he recently stepped down as vice-chair of AJC’s national Interreligious Affairs Commission. The latter role afforded him the opportunity to meet three popes.

21:50 The Community Programming Initiative of Arts & Faith St. Louis aims “to partner with local arts organizations to promote programs that provide further opportunities for interfaith engagement that leads to mutual understanding and respect of differing faith groups. We believe that the arts have a unique power to inspire thoughtful discussion among diverse audiences, to bring people together, and to bridge divides through shared experiences.”     
24:15

The opera Champion , with music by Terence Blanchard and libretto by Michael Christofer, received its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013. Read an Opera News interview with Blanchard and director James Robinson, or watch a preview of Champion:

Watch Timothy O’Leary’s commentary on Champion:
27:30 Located in the old city of Jaffa, Israel, the Arab-Hebrew Theatre “was created by a partnership between the Al-Saraya Theater, an Arab theater troupe, and The Local Theatre, a Jewish troupe. Together, the two companies work on independent projects as well as collaborative productions in both Hebrew and Arabic, drawing on the performances of Arab and Jewish artists. The Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa claims a unique social and cultural mission, reaching out to diverse audiences to promote greater cultural understanding between Arabic and Jewish communities both locally in Jaffa and across Israel.”     
28:20 Learn more about The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict: Through Film & Discussion series, and the Webster Film Series.