Last night I was at the second performance of San Francisco Opera’s Heart of a Soldier, with music by Christopher Theofanidis and libretto by Donna Di Novelli, directed by Francesca Zambello (all under the auspices of SF Opera General Director David Gockley). This is the “9/11” opera, based on the book Heart of a Soldier by James B. Stewart and the life stories of Susan Rescorla, Daniel J. Hill, and, especially, Rick Rescorla, a former soldier who worked in security at the World Trade Center and died while rescuing many of those inside the South Tower. I had read a shortened version of this story in The New Yorker several years ago and found it quite moving.
As in The Story of a Real Man, Prokofiev’s desperate last operatic effort to win Stalin’s approval, this opera uses the story of an actual person whose inspiring and heroic life is meant as both an exemplar for and perhaps a subtle rebuke to his compatriots. I might as well point out here that anything I say about this story applies not to the actual people but to their theatrical representations and the choices made around those representations; choosing a good and brave man as your subject unfortunately does not mean your work will also be good and brave.
I have not read the book. I have also avoided reading or hearing any reactions to the world premiere last Saturday, so I don’t know if my reaction is widely shared or not. I should point out that last night’s audience seemed fairly enthusiastic, though given the automatic emotions connected with this subject matter and the tie-in with the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I suspect most of the opera’s emotional work was already done for it.
Before the opera started Gockley’s disembodied voice issued from overhead telling us to stand and sing along with the national anthem. A cheesy video of a rippling American flag played across the curtain as we of course obliged. I like the national anthem quite a bit, but wondered what exactly was the purpose of this cornball touch. It did seem to suggest that what we were about to see would be void of the complications of a work like The Death of Klinghoffer, with its clashing tragic histories. The woman next to me said, “Is this something new, or is it just for this opera?” I told her I thought it was just for the opera, though for all I know they are now planning to make us sing along next time they stage Madama Butterfly or Nixon in China.
The audience took a while to settle down, as they always do after a sing-along. The opera opens at the World Trade Center, with office workers going about their office worker business, because we know what is about to happen but they don’t. Different times and places are layered on top of one another, as Susan Rescorla (Melody Moore), at her home in New Jersey, sees a piece of paper fall from the sky and notices it is singed (the business with Susan noticing the paper comes from the program-book synopsis, which I read after the show; though I pretty much got the drift, the exact action wasn’t really clear; it’s difficult to notice that a piece of paper has singed edges, even when you’re in the front row, as I was).
We see the adult Rick Rescorla (Thomas Hampson) standing outside the WTC, smiling and looking nostalgic as the scene dissolves to Cornwall in June 1944; a young Cyril Rescorla (Henry Phipps), soon to give himself the more Yankee-sounding name of Rick, has gone to visit the American soldiers he adores only to learn they are being shipped out to an undisclosed location. We know, though they do not, that they are on their way to the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the eventual overthrow of Hitler (so our first view of American military intervention is firmly linked to a war as good as a war can be; the world-saving glow of the good war is allowed to linger over all the subsequent American military actions we are shown).
It’s no wonder a romantic-minded boy like Cyril admires these soldiers, with their undoubted but understated courage, their good-humor, their dedication to duty along with an amused and slightly cynical awareness that sometimes your duty as defined by your higher-ups is a crock though you do it nonetheless, and their camaraderie, which is all the more remarkable in that Cyril appears to have stumbled across the only racially integrated US Army unit around in 1944. In fact he is particularly close to a friendly black man, one of several in the troop.
The United States Army was segregated until 1948, when President Truman, realizing that America’s long-standing and legal racial segregation was a valuable asset for Communist propaganda, and assuming no doubt correctly that such an act would never pass Congress, issued an executive order desegregating the troops. (And of course American apartheid in other areas lasted decades longer.) There is no problem in general with color-blind casting, but by showing us an integrated troop during World War II the opera is erasing the vicious history of American racism in a work that claims to be an accurate representation of historical events involving America’s relations with the world (often the non-white world), and that is indeed a problem.
The next scene takes place in Northern Rhodesia in 1962, where Rick is leading a group of British mercenaries. It is only in the synopsis that they are described as “mercenaries”; the impression you get from what is on stage is that they are regular British troops. You may still wonder what British troops are doing in Northern Rhodesia. The answer is simple: they are helping out the villagers by killing a lion that is killing their goats.
An American, Dan Hill (William Burden), enters a makeshift bar, where he is told by the friendly black bartender of a wonderful man who fights fiercely yet also reads Karl Marx (the mention of Marx is almost startling, as it is one of the few times in this work that you even receive a hint of larger political issues and theories, though no explanation is given as to why Rick reads Marx or what he gets out of him, and when Rick does quote an author, he quotes Kipling).
Rick enters, carried on the shoulders of his cheering men. He is smeared with the blood of the slain lion, since he has taken part in an African ritual to honor and take courage from the dead lion. A tribal chieftan had earlier given him a lion’s tooth to wear as a talisman around his neck, which is supposed to make him invincible in battle. The tooth and the lion’s courage will become leitmotifs in this work. The subtler implication is that Rick is (and, by extension, his troops are) not an interloper in Africa but rather in harmony with its traditional beliefs, and welcomed and admired by the native black population.
In case you’re wondering why you can’t find Northern Rhodesia on a contemporary map, it’s because only a couple of years after the events depicted in Heart of a Soldier the British, having presumably killed all the goat-devouring lions in the country, were expelled, and those who thought the land was theirs because their ancestors had been there long before the British, deciding that the country should no longer be named as if it were the property of English imperialist Cecil Rhodes, renamed it Zambia. You will not learn any of this from Heart of a Soldier; as you may have gathered already, you could get a more insightful view of British imperialism by watching HMS Pinafore.
Rick and Dan bond during a wrestling match. The black bartender demands that they first remove all weapons. He is obeyed without question, and there is laughter as Hill (it is hinted that he is with the CIA, though there is no hint as to why they would send an agent to Northern Rhodesia) pulls out three or four knives to Rick’s one. Hampson and Burden are both in good shape but are clearly middle-aged men and their low-key grappling leaves them a bit winded (I say this sympathetically, as one who is himself a short-of-breath middle-aged man). Most of Zambello’s staging is fluid and effective, but this is not one of the better moments, no matter how many excited shirtless young men she uses to obscure and heighten the action. Apparently the British soldier of 1962 spent any time left over from killing marauding lions in rigorous gym workouts.
(I think that phrases like “fascist aesthetics” should be used very carefully, and I wouldn’t push the comparison too far, but some of the themes in Heart of a Soldier clearly draw from the same well: there is the cult of the warrior’s body, which is homoerotic while cleanly demarcating itself from the homosexual; there is the emphasis on the communal over the individual, particularly in the form of soldierly comradeship, but there is also an emphasis on the necessity of a hero’s strength to save and protect lesser types; there is the importance of discipline and the glorification of heroic death.)
Dan and Rick head off in the mid-1960s, at Dan's suggestion, to the new battle ground of Vietnam, which Dan asserts might be “a just war.” Large placards in the opera-house lobby warn us that this work “contains adult language and deals with adult themes.” There is indeed a lot of military-style swearing, which is daintily excluded from the surtitles (though of course the opera is in English, so I’m not sure why it’s OK to hear “fuck” or "shit" sung but not to read them). But I kept waiting for the opera to deal with adult themes.
One of my many complaints about the libretto for Dr Atomic was that among its multitude of voices it failed to include that of the ordinary soldier (and indeed all its military personnel were portrayed as buffoons), but Heart of a Soldier fails to move beyond a boy’s-book understanding of military life, which is mostly presented as heroic and even glamorous; Dan and Rick frequently list the names of famous battles of the past, from Antietam back to Agincourt and Marathon, joining themselves to an illustrious heritage of soldiership, but there is no suggestion as to which side Rick and Dan would have been on in these battles, or even that the side might be important, and there is no indication that war might have tragic or even unexpected consequences.
Rick behaves heroically in Vietnam – setting an example for his men of defiant bravery, and ignoring orders from his higher-ups so that he and his men can rescue Dan from the VC (though like the other enemies in this work, they are invisible and silent except for their gunfire; we’re not told who exactly they are, or why they’re fighting, or even how they rank in size and organization against the Americans). One of his men takes a lot of speed, but he seems more like a goofball than anything else. When we see these men at Rick’s 1972 wedding in the final scene of the first act, one is in a wheelchair but there is little indication that they are otherwise suffering or damaged because of what they have seen or what they have done.
No one even gets a “dear John” letter from his girl back home (whenever the male bonding starts getting a little too intense, we get references to the girls back home). We see one of the sweethearts, the lovely Juliet (Nadine Sierra), who sprays her letters to her beloved Tom (Michael Sumuel) with her perfume so that he will think of her when he opens them. (Tom is very dark-skinned and Juliet very much lighter, as if that was a matter of no consequence in mid-1960s America.)
Juliet sings about how she used to pray for world peace, but now she “selfishly” just wants her one man to come home. Of course he never will; since we’ve met his girl and heard that he’s a medic who only wants to heal people, it is no surprise when he is killed in action. She does not express anger over the senselessness of his death, as if being killed in Vietnam was equivalent to dying in the invasion of Normandy.
If Rick and Dan grow weary in Vietnam or wary of the army, it’s only because of the pain of seeing their comrades die – not because of any troubling questions as to why the American army is pouring millions of dollars and thousands of young American lives (not to mention the cost in Vietnamese lives) into an invasion of a small Asian country few Americans knew anything about, or because of any concerns over what that endless war was doing to Vietnam or to America. (You’d get a better sense of the cultural ferment and anxiety over the Vietnam War by watching Hair.) Back in civilian life they find they miss their army days.
The only pain of these veterans is caused by the callousness of the civilian population, which ignores them or spits on them (weren’t there articles a few years ago pointing out that the much-cited spitting never in fact happened?). Consistent with this opera’s glorification of a certain sanitized view of military life, we see good men bound by their soldier’s honor being ignored or mistreated by the callous, ignorant civilian population. Civilians generally come off poorly in this work, smugly ignorant of the danger around them, and even of the world around them (there's a running joke about no one knowing where or what Cornwall is, and asking Rick if he's Scottish or Welsh).
During Rick’s wedding reception we learn that Dan feels a growing attraction to the Muslim life he witnessed in Beirut (no explanation is given as to why this American was parachuting into Beirut). He feels drawn to the sense of order and discipline in Muslim life and he converts, heading off (in what seems, but of course is not really, a related action) to Afghanistan to join the Mujahideen in fighting the Russians; apparently nothing Dan has experienced has made him cynical about war or the role superpowers play in the world, and once again this is presented as an individual soldier's search for a good war.
Presumably Dan’s conversion is emphasized in the opera to avoid depicting Islam itself as evil and destructive, but since we are never given any details on the ethnicity, religion, politics, or life experiences of any of the various vague “enemies” throughout the work, what the conversion really does is emphasize (and connect) the superiority of order, discipline, and meaning as found in military or fundamentalist life over the confusion and banality of civilian life.
The second act is shorter and even less effective. Rick is now head of security for a brokerage firm at the WTC. He runs evacuation drills, to the annoyance of his coworkers, who do not understand the purpose, even though this must already be after the first terrorist attack on the WTC. The office drones are reluctant to walk down stairs; they are motivated only when Rick tells them to imagine that there are glazed donuts with jimmies ("red white and blue jimmies") at the bottom of the stairs. They are befuddled and upset when they realize there are no donuts there. They demand to know why they can't just take the elevators; Rick does not give reasons for taking the stairs, even the obvious one that the elevator might get stuck; he merely says it’s the rule. He points out that the WTC is a symbol, though of what he doesn’t say (the Statue of Liberty is also a symbol, and it was not a target), nor does anyone mention that the twin towers are not only a symbol but a place where actual things are done that affect the rest of the world, not always happily.
Susan takes her dog for a walk. The audience reacts as if she were walking a quagga. I don’t know what happens to people when they enter a theater, but for some reason that unavoidable banality of the suburbs, the sight of a woman walking a dog, inevitably causes a sensation. Audience members around me had been quiet and attentive until that moment. The elderly couple to my left started whispering excitedly. A dog! Death in the jungles of Vietnam hadn’t caused such visceral engagement.
Susan meets Rick, who is out jogging barefoot. She wishes to herself that she were the sort of woman who would approach a man. Much emphasis in the early publicity was placed on the love story here, which involves two people in their 50s, but it is completely conventional and not very interesting: they meet cute, they dance together, they fall in love at first sight, they speak excitedly about each other as soulmates. Dan even points out to Rick that he's behaving like a high school kid. Rick and Susan sing at length to themselves (in rhymes; there’s a surprising amount of rhyming in the libretto) about wishing they were someone else, which is a sentiment maybe even more common to adolescents in love than to adults, but frankly it’s not clear who, in romantic terms, they are.
We’ve heard a lot about Rick and the military, but nothing about his marriage, including the reasons for its failure. (Dan does say he had doubts about it starting with the reception, but he doesn’t say why.) We are told that Susan is divorced, but we have no idea what happened, and we are told she has children, though presumably they are adults and out of the picture since no further mention is made of them. Melody Moore gives a committed performance (as, for that matter, do Hampson, Burden, and the rest of the cast) but she is clearly a young woman, with a fresh and vibrant air. Just as the battles we see are stripped of any political, economic, racial or religious context, so, in a subtler way, this relationship is stripped of any of the difficulties and complexities that would differentiate it from a relationship among people in their 20s.
Rick continues to be vigilant, to much comment, most of it negative, from others in his firm, though at least one woman sings voluptuously that she feels safer and better knowing he always has everything under surveillance. (There is no danger seen in a state of constant surveillance.) Dan, still a Muslim, and still working for the US government, continues to warn his superiors (“superiors that aren’t” as the libretto phrases it elsewhere) about the dangers of a possible terrorist attack, especially one caused by the dangerously charismatic Osama bin Laden (referred to only as “Osama”). Once again, the civilian population and the civilian government are shown as hapless and clueless, blithely ignoring dangers that only the honorable military men are clear-sighted enough to be aware of.
I haven’t said much about the music so far, mostly because despite the primacy of music in this art form this libretto is so determinedly blinkered and so relentlessly superficial in its engagement with larger issues that what the music expresses is inevitably limited as well. The music (conducted expertly by Patrick Summers) is mostly strong and appealing, though perhaps lacking in anything too striking or memorable, with a sound that is clearly contemporary but not so contemporary that it will startle the opera patrons. Mostly the music is quite engaging. It only really fails in the final scene, which is of course the 9/11 attacks; neither the music nor the libretto nor the direction rise to any heights here, and mostly suggest what is going on somewhat sketchily, though that does work under the circumstances, as the audience can supply a lot of the detail (and a lot of the emotion) from memories of the event.
We are back at the two towers we saw in the first scene, which are basically two large grids with stairs inside at the back of the stage; first the lights go off in the one on the right, and then there is confusion in the one on the left, and reassuring announcements from the clueless Port Authority before Rick realizes he needs to evacuate his people; then, when the second plane hits, the lights go out there as well. Papers start raining down from the destroyed building. At the end Dan and Susan recreate the lion’s blood ritual by rubbing ash from the towers on their arms.
When I first heard about this proposed work, it was merely a vaguely referred to “opera on 9/11” to be performed on the tenth anniversary. This did not strike me as a good idea. After the first few days (or was it only hours?) after the massacre, the United States sank to the challenge by unleashing an ugly, short-sighted, and dangerous period (still going on) of aggressive war, hysterical bullying, and xenophobia, and a curtailment of the civil liberties of its own citizens. I never thought I would hear anyone conscious of American ideals defend torture (always of “bad people” of course, who are always other people, again of course).
Given the anniversary timing of the opera, I figured we’d be seeing the heroes of 9/11, and not its subsequent manipulation and abuse in American society. So my first reaction was that the idea for the opera was either cynical box-office calculation or a misguided wallow in feel-good uplift (though of course those are not mutually exclusive motives). After seeing it, I have no doubt of the complete sincerity of the many talented people involved, which is probably why I was so saddened rather than angered by the work's insistence on a narrow and superficial view of a complicated and profound event.
The storyline calls for a deeper examination of the strengths and limitations of a military code of honor in a world that often has other aims and means, but the work is so cleansed of any complicating context that what we are left with is largely propaganda for a militarized society. I walked in suspecting (correctly) that no mention would be made of the estimated 100,000 plus Iraqis killed by the USA since the post-9/11 invasion of that country (and what a sorrowful history is in that “estimated”!). What I did not suspect was that, as presented in Heart of a Soldier, even the deaths of the other American victims would fail to evoke pity or even sympathy; the emphasis on one extraordinary man, far from putting a personal face on the thousands of victims, throws them even further into the shadows; they mill about in selfish confusion, having ignored Rick's attempts to drill them and save them, and all you feel is that it was a shame a hero died for these anonymous, ineffectual weaklings. The communal tragedy of 9/11 is missing.
I suspect that most of us who seek out live music found ourselves turning to music when we first heard about the attacks; I know that for me the Brahms Requiem will always carry overtones of the original 9/11, because after we were all sent home from work (I was in California, but no one knew what was going to happen, and no one could work anyway) I spent most of the day listening to it over and over, not knowing quite what else to do. An actor friend of mine told me that what he did felt so futile to him. I handed him my DVD of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and said that he was one of the few people I knew who shouldn’t say his work felt futile; I don’t agree with Adorno's famous remark that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric because it seems to me poetry – creation – is really the only human answer to human tragedies such as Auschwitz. So the idea of a 9/11 opera is not in itself a bad one, but this one fails to grapple in any serious way with either the causes or the effects of 9/11; such a work would need a whole lot more honesty about American history and society and America’s role in the world than we get in Heart of a Soldier.