John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer goes fearlessly where no opera has ventured before. Tackling the theme of terrorism, by portraying the 1985 hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian gunmen, it has been surrounded by the sort of controversy more common in theatre or the visual arts.

Klinghoffer has had a handful of stagings in San Francisco in 1992 and a few isolated seasons in Europe. In 2001, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra planned to perform the opera's choruses, the tragedy of September 11 and public pressure led to a change of programme.

Next Friday, Klinghoffer has its Australasian premiere. It is a concert presentation, with soloists including David Griffiths, David Hamilton, Wendy Dawn Thompson and Jared Holt. The Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus and members of Viva Voce join forces for Adams' monumental, Bach-inspired choruses, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra takes care of the orchestral side, with some carefully programmed synthesisers. It looks set to be the jewel of AK05's musical crown.

Conductor Mark Stringer has come to New Zealand from Switzerland. He is an American who has been working in Europe since the early 90s and admits he is very much a theatre man.

"I like to play ping-pong with the stage," Stringer quips. "You give me something, I'll give you something back. Sometimes the sheer solitary control of a concert performance is a little unnerving."

Holt, the 2000 Mobil Song Quest winner who is returning to sing Adams' Captain, is less unnerved because the opera is "almost like a play with music, being sung in English to an English-speaking audience".

Stringer agrees on the advantages the work has when it comes to communication: "Klinghoffer uses the language we all speak today. It's more direct into the brain. We know the cultural circumstances and the context in which it was written. We can immediately apply it to what has been happening over the past 15 years."

This is opera with a rare ability to provoke and disturb. As an American, the conductor frankly admits that "many Americans cannot deal with the even-handed exploration of the terrorist mindset that occurs in this opera. It's simply too abhorrent. This was a hot potato back in 1991 and it's even more so after 9/11.

"But the audience needs to realise that all of these characters can be found in us. Everyone of us is able, given the right horrific circumstances, to snap and become the beast."

John Adams is one of Stringer's culture-heroes and, later this year, he will conduct a special concert of Adams and Ives ("the two daddies of American music", chuckles Stringer) for the BBC.

"This man is one of the few composers today who has what any great composer must have - an instantly recognisable language. In Klinghoffer I can hear Verdi, some Mozart and Monteverdi. But at any time this music could only be by John Adams.

"That's why he has become the leading light in American music. He is to this generation what Copland was to Bernstein's. He is leading the pack. Adams has dared to go where many American composers would never dare, deep under the skin. You can see that in his 9/11 tribute piece, The Transmogrification of Souls."

Don't write him off as "just another minimalist", warns Stringer. "Adams has evolved from minimalism. He uses minimalist elements but there is just as much jazz, romantic cliches, even. There are many things straight out of Verdi.

"The harmonic language may be different but the dramatic technique and sounds that he uses come out of Rigoletto and Don Carlos."

Stringer makes more parallels - with the way in which the orchestration of Peter Grimes evokes the ever-present sea; or Adams' wordsetting "that fits American speech just like Janaceck's music nails Moravian dialect".

The main character of Klinghoffer "has been transformed into Moses with those enormous tablets of sound. Sometimes it is coming straight out of Charlton Heston".

Hamilton baritone David Griffiths, who plays Klinghoffer, finds "a kind of simplicity and humility to the man, with a simple human outrage at the situation.

"He expresses his sense of righteous indignation and his complete disbelief at the atrocity of it all. His second aria is an amazing piece of music, sung by the spirit of the dying man".

Often Adams' music reveals character traits that aren't in Alice Goodman's libretto. "Take the case of the terrorist Mamoud," Stringer points out. "Goodman describes him as a vulnerable, poetic and latent romantic character. But those slow rhythms that Adams writes show he is, in fact, the most damaged character.

"He is a master of metaphor, he knows the Islamic literature. He recognises in the captain a similar love of poetry and humanity and is able to manipulate the captain through this.

"Romance and birds and murder are all one to him. He can as easily feed a bird as he can kill a child, which is what makes him terrifying."

To balance this scrupulously clear-eyed dissection of the terrorist spirit, Stringer speaks up for the character of Klinghoffer's widow, who has a crucial aria at the end of the opera.

"I dare anyone in the audience not to listen to Marilyn Klinghoffer's big aria and not be completely gutted by how direct from the heart this woman speaks to every one of us."

Above all, Stringer adds, "God bless AK05 for putting it on and making the audience deal with this music and the themes because it is one of the great operas of the past 50 years."

* Auckland Town Hall, Friday February 25, 7.30pm