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Alan Opie as Leon Klinghoffer in the ENO/Metropolitan Opera coproduction of "The Death Of Klinghoffer" (photo: Richard Hubert-Smith)

The working world spares no sympathy for cruise passengers. When a plane falls out of the sky or a train is derailed we clutch ourselves and murmur, there but for the grace of. On hearing that a cruise liner has been beached, bombed or beset by mass vomiting, what we feel, if anything, is a flush of shame at our lack of fellow-feeling for those who pay to sail in luxury between the active life and a golden sunset.

I first observed this bemused reaction almost 30 years ago on the faces of clerks in a Rome hotel who were processing survivors of the Achille Lauro terror attack. None knew what to say to the shocked guests, or how to respond in a human way. A ship had been hijacked by four Palestinians while sailing off the Egyptian coast in October 1985. After being refused entry to a Syrian port, the terrorists shot an American pensioner, Leon Klinghoffer, and hurled him overboard in his wheelchair.

By the time I ran into the passengers, the story was over bar the diplomatic shouting. In ten days, it would have been erased from common memory, eclipsed by ghastlier events, consigned to the long tail of Holy Land atrocities that extends from the Hebron massacre of 1929 to this morning's news. Cruise ships do not figure among the great causes. The Achille Lauro would have died, had it not become an opera.

That said, the recent uproar at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, over John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer amounted on the whole to an uninspiring recapitulation of fixed prejudices. One side shouted for free speech and modern art, the other in outrage at anti-Semitic expressions and the abuse of an innocent victim's memory.

Reprising the static objections should not take more than two paragraphs. Racial prejudice is found in the opera in a hijacker's tirade at his helpless prisoner:

. . . Wherever poor men
Are gathered they can
Find Jews getting fat.
You know how to cheat
The simple, exploit
the virgin, pollute
Where you have exploited . . .

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