9/11 as opera- a bad idea, poorly done

"We said at the beginning, we were not going to write a '9/11' opera. We wanted to be true to who Rick [Rescorla] was throughout his life," librettist Donna Di Novelli claims in the program notes for the world premier of composer Christopher Theofanidis' Heart of a Soldier, now onstage at the War Memorial Opera House courtesy of San Francisco Opera's David Gockley and director Francesca Zambello. Perhaps that was the intent at the beginning, but the end is result is indeed a "9/11 opera" and a woefully inadequate one at that, though I don't really have any idea what would  be an adequate artistic response to that event.

Through press releases and various interviews, the public's been led to believe this opera is about the life of one man, Rick Rescorla, an undisputed hero who died while leading 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees to safety that morning; his autumn romance with Susan Greer, who would become his second wife; and his long friendship with his fellow soldier Dan Hill. It was based on a book of the same name written by James B. Stewart. Let me get one thing out of the way- I haven't read the book Heart of a Soldier, and I'm of the firm belief that like a film based on a book, to be considered successful a work must stand on its own apart from whatever it's based on, independent of the source material. Of course knowing the source helps immensely, and no doubt based on what I've read, the raw material for an opera about Rescorla exists, but it's not present here. The wrong people were hired to bring this to the stage.

The fallacy behind the claims of Heart of a Soldier not being about 9/11 begins with the extremely uncomfortable decision of San Francisco Opera to begin each performance with the National Anthem. What is the rationale behind this decision? What is this supposed to mean or represent to the audience? While the anthem sounds beautiful when sung by 3000 people in the house, it also feels horribly wrong. Is this part of the stage direction? Is the audience going to be requested to stand and rise for the "Star Spangled Banner" if the opera is performed at Covent Garden? Then why here? I presume this isn't being done at each performance of Turandot.Why this opera, if this is about a hero- and not about 9/11?

The entire opera clocks in at two hours and fifteen minutes, including a twenty minute intermission. That's a good half-hour shorter than a Transformers movie- and that's the biggest problem in Heart of Soldier- with the exception of one scene in the second act, it comes across as a series of  strung together sketches and vignettes, devoid of a story arc and any real character development, just a series of scenes from a life (or three), until we get to that September morning when everyone in the audience knows what's coming next. To make it what the creators claimed they wanted, the work would have had to have been nearly twice as long- and should have been.
There are perhaps four real arias in the entire opera- none of which are terribly moving nor memorable when removed from the context- you likely would never want to hear them again, nor would you likely remember the melodies, because there aren't any. The best one is sung by a symbolic character -one without any real relevance to the story. The libretto is dull in the first act and in the second, which features the romance between the Rescorlas, much of the libretto falls beneath the lamest dialogue found in Hollywood's romantic comedies- or a 3rd tier television show. It's dreadful stuff. Over and over again, each emotion, each important moment, is given two lines, and then it's on to the next part of the story- it's all exposition instead of development.

Repeatedly at the points in the story where the the audience should reasonably expect some true character development or dramatic tension to develop because this is all based on real people and real events, Theofanidis and Di Novello quickly move on to the next plot point in Rescorla's biography, shedding no light on who the man really was, nor what motivated him and Daniel Hill  (hell, I would have been happy with some interesting music, but that's nowhere to be found either).  Instead they've created what may well be the first Power Point opera- Rescorla's life is rendered as a series of bullet points, the geographic locations where it unfolds (England, Rhodesia, Vietnam, Fort Benning) are merely slides to put them on. Nothing sticks, nothing grows, yet all the while the audience knows where this is all headed. Why? Because it ends on the morning of 9/11- and there is nothing in the opera for two hours that stops us along the way, forcing us to consider why this story is going to end on this day. We just know that it does- because it is the 9/11 opera.

There is one scene in the opera that does work and works painfully well- because its the one point in the work that everyone in the audience is going to respond to in their own deeply personal way. It's unavoidable. When the chorus starts to sing about how beautifully blue the sky is on that September morning- and it was a remarkably blue sky that morning- we all know that- it's part of the horror, and knowing what's coming made me choke up. It's extremely effective and you know what? It's fucking manipulative. Nothing in the work itself merits that response.

We don't know these characters to care enough about them as they are presented here- the Rescorlas and Hill are meant to portray us- Americans (and those who want to be), that is, real people with our hopes, dreams, expectations, sense of duty, fears- but they don't because unlike in an opera (or film or novel) where we see ourselves in the characters- or people we'd like to imagine ourselves to be- those people aren't brought to life onstage in Heart of a Soldier- they're in a book, they exist (or existed) in real-life, but they are not on the stage. Avatars are on the stage. And yet because we are talking about an event so complicated to us still, even after what feels like an incredibly brief ten years, that response comes from the collective emotions forged from an event the audience understands through their own history, yet that's not what's being portrayed on the stage.

At the work's conclusion, there is one important, notable musical masterstroke in an otherwise largely unimpressive score- the opera ends on an ascending series of chords leading inexorably to a point where the listener anticipates resolution- and there is none. The music just stops.

Zambello's direction is distractingly cinematic in places, at others it just doesn't gel. In the first act characters appear on stage with no justification- Juliet appears in three of the first four scenes, but I can't tell you why. At the end of the Vietnam segment, there is a noticeable shift in Dan's character that is unexplained, left to the audience to perhaps infer the horrors of X-Ray has caused two men who were mirrors of one another to suddenly take different radically different approaches to how they handle the men they command. Links are missing everywhere. At a wedding in Dallas in 1972 the guests do a dance that looks like it belongs in a production of Eugene Onegin. The collected wives in the Dallas scene form a chorus whose lyrics are so banal it's almost painful.

The second act doesn't fare any better as we enter the last three years of Rescorla's life. Melody Moore makes a game effort to give Susan some depth but she's undermined by the libretto at every turn. Thomas Hampson's middle-aged Rescorla under Zambello's direction morphs from hero to sitcom character during their meeting and courtship- I suppose its meant to make them real to us, but their romance, described as the most improbable that could have happened to either of them at this point in their lives, is developed faster than a hook-up on Jersey Shore- and the saddest part is there's hardly any singing to take us along the path of these lovers- just lots of dialogue and a few lines sung here and there. And yet this romance is supposed to anchor the entire work? I'm not saying Susan has to drop her key in front of Rescorla while he's jogging and ask him to help her find it, or that he has to unwittingly drink a love potion, but this is an opera and if two people are going to fall in love like they never have before they deserve some music to accompany it- and so does the audience. Their duet starts off "Do you ever wish there wasn't so much before this?" I wished there was something either before or after to show why we should even care.

Shortly after that the happy Rescorla describes the woman of his life with this beautiful, descriptive phrase: "She's funny. She's warm." That's all we get. Sure, the man is a military guy, but he hasn't been shown thus far to be the quiet brooding type so couldn't we have more than this? It would be one thing if he'd been portrayed as complex and conflicted up to this point but that's not the case. The characters just have no development in an opera that seems more interested in getting us to the horrible ending than in making us care about the people we're following there.

An example of how this could have been so much better? There's a part where Rescorla admits he has a "filthy habit" of smoking cigars. Susan confesses she likes them too and Rescorla feels this seals it- she is indeed the perfect woman for him. What should have followed was a scene where they are smoking cigars together. It would have been sexy. It would have made them real to us. Instead the story just kept chugging along.

Another miss- when Dan is discussing Bin Laden, there is no difference discernible in the music. Not that the music had any leit motives that I noticed, but if the libretto is going to mention OBL why wouldn't the composer take that opportunity to make a musical statement within the context? Instead there's nothing.

Hampson's big moment- an aria which begins with the line "We fought side by side at Marathon..." was the only aria to garner any applause. I'm not sure I want any applause moments during a 9/11 opera, much less comedic ones that seem like they came from an old episode of Rhoda, but if there's going to be one, than give the audience one for each major character. Sadly- and freakishly, the most startling, beautiful vocal moment in the entire work comes from Mohannad Mchallah's call to prayer. It's more stylized than any other vocal part in the opera- and the most effective. And for some reason that exoticism annoys me greatly- both its presence, which comes from a poorly explained part of Hill's character development, and its emphasis, which is left completely unresolved within the story when Hill returns to New York as if he'd never really left, though as a Muslim he claims to be in much better physical shape than Rescorla is now.

The music during the evacuation adds no drama, and the sound of the towers being hit doesn't chill the listener like it should. It should, right? If you're going to render an event of this magnitude on the stage than do it and then create a catharsis for the audience after it. Of course that's impossible- which is why it would have been better to not attempt it in the first place- at least not like this.

Having said all that, William Burden's Hill was the vocal and acting highlight of the afternoon. Though they seemed engaged in their roles, I just felt badly watching Hampson and Moore sing this stuff. In smaller roles Michael Sumuel was extremely effective, as were Adler Fellows Nadine Sierra, Maya Lahyani, Susannah Biller and Sarah Gartland.