Monday, September 19, 2011

San Francisco Opera: Theofanidis’s "Heart of a Soldier"

Sept. 18, 2011

In the highly compressed world of opera, the idea of a 9/11 opera is truly scary. There’s too much “there” there. In commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Twin Tower attacks, San Francisco Opera landed on the perfect focus: one man’s life, a life that ended on that momentous day. Rick Rescorla, the security chief for the Morgan Stanley investment firm, evacuated all 2,700 of his workers from the South Tower, then, heading back in to seek out stragglers, perished in the ensuing collapse.

The first act of the work, created by composer Christopher Theofanidis and librettist Donna Di Novelli, threatens to fall into a similar trap: trying to sum up a life that is simply too big. This seems especially true of a running Socratic dialogue on the nature of war, conducted by Rescorla and his best friend Dan Hill during tours of duty in Rhodesia and Vietnam. Following a battle in the Ia Drang River Valley, Dan declares “I don’t want to know their names,” while Rick obsesses over every lost soldier. The act feels overburdened with philosophizing, but this is a false sensation. Especially with the glut of attention brought by coverage of the anniversary, one feels impatient to get to the horrors of the main event. In fact, there’s plenty going on in Act 1, it’s all necessary to the conclusive action in Act 2, and the opera’s total running time is a modest two hours, ten minutes.

A crucial line of the narrative centers on the Vietnam platoon’s medic, Tom, played with great heart by baritone Michael Sumuel. A running correspondence with his sweetheart, Juliet (soprano Nadine Sierra), gives the opera a grunt’s-eye view of the real cost, the fear and loneliness of those who wait at home. Tom’s death in battle (one of the more visceral killings you’ll see in an opera) launches Juliet’s aria of worry, “I read and re-read the old letters,” and also helps to illuminate the depth of Rick’s compassion for his men.

The jungle battle scene is terrifying, due to a combination of qualities: singers that actually look and move like soldiers, the use of recorded battle sounds (Tod Nixon, sound designer), a dizzying background of Vietnam-era footage (S. Katy Tucker, projection designer), and Theofanidis’s pulsating, explosive score.

Theofanidis occupies the new school of opera composing, where personal style takes a backseat to the needs of the story. He opens with a troop of Normandy-bound Yanks singing to the tune of the familiar military marching chant (“Left! Left!” etc.) then borrows a Cornish fighting song for young Rick (the fine boy soprano Henry Phipps) to teach to the troops. The wedding song, “Overflow your glasses,” evokes Copland. The drug-addled soldier Dex plays his rifle to the sound of rock guitar, and Dan receives his call to Islam from Mohannad Mchallah, a Syrian singer trained in the secular Mideast form of Muwashshah.

What’s especially welcome – compared to the grinding, moaning tempi of many modern operas – is Theofanidis’s use of rapid rhythms. He applies martial modes throughout, notably in the staccato shouting accents of the training-camp scene at Ft. Benning and the adrenalized, chaotic scenes in Vietnam and at Ground Zero. He even makes use of counterpoint, in a fugue of Morgan Stanley workers gossiping about their strangely intense security chief (“Always watching”).

The second act opens with some much-needed relief: the light-hearted, late-in-life romance between Rescorla and Susan Greer, his New Jersey neighbor. Falling rapidly for each other over coffee, the two fiftysomethings act like teenagers, the accompanying awkwardness delivered by Di Novelli’s artful wit and wordplay in the duet “Do you ever wish?” When Susan assumes that Rick’s Cornwall homeland must be somehow associated with bagpipes, she asks, “Isn’t all the UK kind of bagpipey?” Rick later defends his excessive evacuation drills to his workers by saying, “I’m here to save your asses!” “From what?” they ask. “Exactly!” he replies.

Playing Susan, Melody Moore lights up the stage, delivering extra servings of warmth and humor with her vibrant soprano. William Burden plays Dan Hill with a strong, clear tenor and an underlying toughness. Baritone Thomas Hampson, whose involvement was a primary reason for the opera’s development, performs the forbidding task of taking a half-intellectual, half-warrior, almost mythic figure and making him fully human. “Marathon,” a genuine hit aria foreshadowing the events to come, gives Hampson a chance to shine, backed by sweeping strings and brass.

This central trio provides the perfect setup for the fateful morning: Susan in her bedroom, Dan mowing his lawn as Rick works behind them in the towers: two four-level platforms whose long vertical lines evoke the architecture of the World Trade Center. As the planes strike the North Tower across from them, then their own tower, Rick ignores the Port Authority’s call for the workers to stay put and orders them into their drill, singing all the way down the tower as a way to drive off panic. Hampson’s part could be the first operatic piece delivered entirely through a megaphone (“Exit singing”). Susan and Dan receive their final phone calls from Rick, and react with the same horror and anguish felt by the rest of the country. Moore delivers a fearsome top note as she begs Rick not to go back in (“I want you to stay!”). Burden watches the towers collapse and cries out the names of his friend’s favorite battles: “Marathon! Agincourt! Antietam!”

The set design by Peter J. Davison, and the manipulation of its elements, is masterful. The battle-heavy first act is a dreamlike world of flyaway flats, sets, screens and chin-up bars, augmented by Mark McCollough’s lighting. The eight-ton towers – built by Adirondack Studios in New York – achieve just the right balance of evocation without using actual imagery from the attacks, a smart decision by the production team. The most remarkable image is a rainfall of office papers, providing a moving visual elegy to the lives lost that day. The performance was led by stage director Francesca Zambello, who initiated the project when she read her friend James Stewart’s book of the same title. Conductor Patrick Summers worked with Theofanidis in developing the opera, and led his orchestra in an energetic, nuanced performance.

Through Sept. 30, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$389. 415/864-3330,

Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at

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