Wednesday, September 14, 2011

SF Opera's 9/11 Part 1: Heart of a Soldier

When the news appeared last year that the San Francisco Opera had commissioned a world premiere opera about a "hero" from the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster ten years ago, I picked up the James B. Stewart book on which it was based, Heart of a Soldier. It's the biography of Rick Rescorla, an athletic Cornwall teenager in the 1950s (above, age 16) who joins the British military at the end of their empire days and whose violent adventures across the world end with him dying on 9/11 in one of the World Trade Center towers after saving thousands as part of his security chief job.

Stewart is a business writer who in 2001 noticed that Morgan Stanley's thousands of employees all seemed to have survived while the employees on the floors above and below suffered severe losses. The major reason for their survival turned out to be on account of Rick Rescola (above on bullhorn, with Jorge Velasquez and Godwin Forde, who also both died in the tower). He insisted on serious quarterly evacuation drills for the firm, partly because he was obsessed with the idea of a plane being driven into the towers with explosives.

The book started as a long New Yorker article with the major source of information being Rescorla's widow, Susan (above), who Rick had married two years earlier (#2 for him, #3 for her) soon after his receiving a diagnosis of prostate cancer. Susan is shoehorned into the book's narrative, with alternating chapters about her failed marriages with unreliable characters. None of these stories have absolutely anything to do with the central Rescorla saga, so in both book and opera Susan simply serves as The Romantic Interest in the Last Act. She seems to see her widowhood to The 9/11 Hero as a vocation, and according to the opera program:
"She is actively involved in several projects about her husband and those inspired by him, and she recently published a book, Touched by a Hero, about her experiences and hundreds of others who were touched by her husband's story. She also became a board member of the National Foundation of Patriotism in Atlanta."

The opera starts with Rick as a boy, worshiping Yank soldiers stationed in Cornwall prior to D-Day and skips over his first posting with the British Military during The Cyprus Emergency of the late 1950s (click here for an amazing website called Britain's Small Wars filled with first person accounts of those "Small Wars"). Britain had just been kicked out of Egypt and had moved their Mideast military HQ to Cyprus just as it was about to explode into a last spasm of centuries-old Greek/Turkish antagonism and war. Rescorla was an interrogator which probably means he was a torturer, doing the dirty work of fading Empire.

He moved on to the Northern Rhodesia Military Police in 1961, when it was in the last three years of its century-long existence, since the country was about to become independent Zambia. This was a period where proxy wars between the U.S. and Russia were being fought throughout poor countries all over the world and Northern Rhodesia was no exception. Whether Rescorla was torturing and murdering black Africans in their own country is unclear in the book, but it seems a distinct possibility.

Even though the opera hops from one hot war spot to another, all the fighting is with unseen foes, as if to assure us that no actual poor, dark foreigners were harmed in the making of this production. The book is also fairly negligent in this respect, but it allows for more ambiguities in the characters' feelings about their soldiering.

The major relationship in the book is between Rick and Dan Hill, an American CIA soldier of fortune who was doing anti-communist reconnaissance in Africa and bumped into Rescorla on a rugby pitch. A lifelong friendship was born, with the omnivorous reader Rescorla playing tutor with Kipling and Shakespeare to his lower-class American buddy. One of the lost opportunities in the opera, in fact, is that the story is crying out for a major hetero bromance duet such as exist in "Don Carlo" or "The Pearl Fishers" and we never get to hear it. (William Burden as Hill and Thomas Hampson as Rescorla in Cory Weaver photo above.)

After their African adventure, Hill talked Rescorla into joining him in Officer Training at Fort Benning in preparation for the next great war, Vietnam (Rescorla above in a famous AP photograph, looking like a movie star). He was an inspirational leader in an early, savage battle which is recounted in the "Once We Were Soldiers" book and movie. Rescorla and Hill are eventually respectful and sympathetic to their Vietnamese opposition, figuring correctly that they are going to win because it's their own country. None of that subtlety, however, seeps into the opera, which is more interested in the triumphal mythologizing of a Hero.

The opera depicts the Vietnam battle scenes mostly in loud music and strobe lights, but once again the Vietnamese are The Invisible Enemy. After Vietnam, Hill and Rescola went their separate ways in the United States, and at one low, alcoholic moment Hill stumbled across a group of Muslims on prayer rugs on the side of the road praying to Mecca, and it stirred something in him. He became a Muslim and eventually went to fight with the CIA-sponsored Afghanistan "Freedom Fighters" against the Russians.

The short second act of the opera mostly focuses on Susan and Rick's late-in-the-day romance, which might have benefited from casting a great old diva in the role since it's short, showy, and there are only two high C's. Plus, there aren't that many leading diva parts that are expressly written for a middle-aged woman (Britten's "Gloriana" is the only one that comes to mind), so it seemed odd to cast Melody Moore, who is just a few years out of the Adler young singers program.

The performances of everyone in the show, from principals Thomas Hampson, William Burden, Moore, and a large cast of subsidiary characters and chorus, were completely committed and superb. They were so good that they managed to get me over some of the bumpier parts. Director Francesca Zambello conceived of the project as an opera in the first place, and her staging was slick, clever, and sincere. A friend noticed an oddity, however:
"This is a really interesting piece of post-feminism, especially given that it has a female librettist and female director. Women apparently exist only to say come back, and to be loving (and interfering). This certainly wasn't the 60's -70's I remember."
The music by Christopher Theofonidis is bright, dramatic and accessible, using a lot of the sound world of post-minimalist John Adams without the genius. I heard the first two performances of the opera and the music mostly improves on acquaintance, which is a good sign. To hear more of Theofonidis' music, click here for an extensive selection of audio excerpts on his website.

Critical reaction has been all over the map after the premiere of "Heart of a Soldier" (click here for Opera Tattler's handy Media Round-Up) with the bashing probably outweighing the praise. I thought the opera and the production was mostly successful on its own terms, though the straining for hagiography did get to be a bit much. The worst decision was to preface each performance with the audience singing The Star Spangled Banner with the orchestra and a cheesy video of Old Glory waving in the wind. The skillfully telescoped libretto by Donna Di Novelli didn't indulge in any of that kind of jingoism, and it does the opera a disservice. Wrapping yourself up in a flag is not the only valid reaction to the events of ten years ago.

(All SF Opera production photos by Cory Weaver.)

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