Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Unforgotten

September 11, 2011

William Burden and Melody Moore with chorus in Heart of a Soldier Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

Ten years ago, the unthinkable happened. Thousands died in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and many things changed for everyone, especially for those who were injured or lost loved ones. There has been much written and said about what is and isn’t appropriate to say and do in memory of these events on this 10-year anniversary. Artists and those who follow them closely have debated what constitutes an appropriate artistic response. Some things have apparently turned out not to be OK, like using photographs of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers for a recording cover. Others appear to be more acceptable. Where San Francisco Opera’s world premiere production of Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier lies is as debatable as anything else. Saturday’s audience received it warmly if not ecstatically. There were certainly many tears in the house, and while they may have been tears of recognition, they weren't exactly tears of catharsis. Heart of a Soldier may remind people of painful events, but it is not good art.

The opera itself feels like a strange antiquity despite its contemporary newsworthiness. Theofanidis and librettist Donna Di Novelli have crafted an opera where heroism is as uncomplicated and sentimental as anything from the 19th century. John Adams was often accused of writing "CNN-operas" ripped from the day's headlines. But after seeing Heart of a Soldier one realizes nothing could be farther from the truth. Adams' work is filled with moments that are abstract and lyrical. By contrast Heart of a Soldier is like watching the History Channel. The opera, based on James B Stewart’s biography of the same name, takes up the life of a truly heroic real person, Rick Rescorla. Rescorla had already been a hero many times over in armed conflicts around the world by the time he became head of security for Morgan Stanley in New York. His story is tied to the events of September 11, 2001, in that he died while saving the lives of thousands of people. And to be honest, Heart of a Soldier is less of a “9/11 opera” than a biographical one about Rescorla’s life. Only the last 15 minutes of the two-hour evening have much to do with actual events of that day.

Wiliam Burden and Thomas Hampson in Heart of a Soldier Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

Leading up to that finale are a series of daring-dos for the Rescorla character. He is drenched in the blood of a lion he’s killed to save a village in 1960s Rhodesia. He ignores the commands of his superiors in Vietnam to go back across enemy lines to save his friend Dan Hill, played here by William Burden. It’s seamless and quickly paced and boring as anything. The action is so packed that while the lines are sung, there is very little operatic about it. There is too much to get through for any internal reflection or poetry, and the music is inconsequential background noise. It’s not until some strain develops between Hill and Rescorla at the end of Act I, which concludes with Hill converting to Islam, that the opera actually shows any signs of life. Act II fares better when we watch Rescorla, a completely committed Thomas Hampson, begin to exhibit an actual personality while courting his soon-to-be second wife Susan. In the final sequence on the day of the attacks, Rescorla goes to work but is strangely not given a place of prominence in the vocal music or action in favor of the chorus. I’m not certain the opera's creators and director Francesco Zambello have much to say outside of the facts of the story. And maybe that’s still all we Americans are up to handling right now in terms of coming to grips with this tragedy.

There are virtually no sets in Heart of a Soldier to speak of. There are scrims and a couple of backdrops mostly for video projection of maps of far away places. There are two four-story towers with stairwells meant to evoke the Twin Towers that are revealed when appropriate to the story line. When the towers are stuck, the chorus members on the several floors fall to the ground and video imagery of falling sheets of paper are superimposed. This is one of the few instances where Theofanidis’ score rises above bland background decoration. The impact on the towers is as sudden and unexpected as the interruption of the musical lines. The choral writing here, with the workers in the second tower expressing their fear and confusion about what to do is emotionally striking. But you have to go a very long way in this show to get to this.

William Burden (Dan Hill) and Mohannad Mchallah (Imam) Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

The principals, Hampson, Burden, and Melody Moore, who plays Susan Rescorla, all availed themselves admirably. Burden was the biggest vocal hero of the evening. He should have an even bigger career, like the one Brandon Jovanovich has right now, and he is as exciting to watch in this as anywhere. Thomas Hampson is onstage throughout this whole show and quite believable, what with the quality of what he's given to sing. Moore's bright, clear soprano is pleasing. Patrick Summers led the opera orchestra and did his best with a score that keeps the instrumentalists completely out of the opera's way.

All of these proceedings were wrapped up in some unusual and discomforting occurrences. Before the show, a group of 9/11 conspiracy theory fanatics were ensconced outside the hall with a large inflatable elephant handing out pamphlets. At least one of them purchased a ticket and strolled around the lobby during intermission with his t-shirt encouraging audience members to question reality. The opera had stationed men and women in military uniform at the doors as assistant ushers and the whole thing kicked off with the National Anthem complete with waving flag projected on the stage’s scrim. It was a bizarre mix of paranoia and sadness with just a subtle dash of jingoism that made the evening feel even stranger than it already did considering the lackluster musical and dramatic qualities of the show. But opera, as does life, goes on. Whether or not Heart of a Soldier will be seen by other companies clamoring to restage the events of one of America’s most recent fateful days remains to be seen. Which is a shame for the real Rick Rescorla. He deserves a better opera than the one he got this time around.



ARGH I was in SF yesterday afternoon and we could have had dinner or coffee or something.

I am trying to figure out whether to see this or not, for multiple reasons.

Agree with you about Adams, having seen Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China. The former has many weaknesses and some great moments; the latter is simply a masterpiece.
Love your title for this. I'd say that waving video flag to the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning and the Sea Scouts handing out programs at the door was more than "a subtle dash of jingoism." Try "hitting us over the head with patriotic symbolism," which the actual opera didn't do, thank Allah.

Nice to see you again in person, and I hope "Idomeneo" was better than the continuing flag-waving at Opera in the Park on Sunday afternoon.
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