Thursday, December 9, 2010

San Francisco Opera's New Commission - Heart of a Soldier

On 7 December, San Francisco Opera (SF Opera) announced the details of their new commission, Heart of a Soldier, by Christopher Theofanidis based on a book of the same name by James B. Stewart about Rick Rescorla, the head of security for Morgan Stanley who died shepherding people to safety during the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.  The librettist of the opera is Donna DiNovelli and it will be conducted by SF Opera's Principal Guest Conductor Patrick Summers, with SF Opera Artistic Adviser Francesca Zambello chosen as director.  The main characters will be performed by baritone Thomas Hampson, tenor William Burden and soprano Melody Moore.

SF Opera disclosed that the opera has a traditional orchestra but also includes electric guitar and synthesizer. Theofanidis claimed that there are hints of music from very different circumstances here that run below the surface, music from the 1940s, rock of the 1960s, Cornish folksong and Islamic calls to prayer, as a reference to a character’s conversion to Islamic religion.

Producing an opera is expensive and staging a commissioned opera is a gigantic task. SF Opera should be lauded for its efforts.  However, I only wish it would be more selective.  In recent seasons, it had presented several interesting or so-so world premiere operas.  Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking was a runaway success, if largely due to its vivid theatricality, while Stewart Wallace's Bonesetter's Daughter was a dud.  Saddled in between were dramatically flaccid Doctor Atomic by John Adams or inept A Streetcar Named Desire by André Previn.

Current SF Opera's general director David Gockley freely admitted that the current enterprise started with his last job as general director of Houston Grand Opera and it was Zambello who came up with the idea of adapting Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart's book on the life stories of Susan Rescorla, Rick Rescorla and Daniel J. Hill into an opera.

According to SF Opera's announcement, the new opera is
a story of war, love, friendship and heroism. Heart of a Soldier reflects on the extraordinary true story of Rick Rescorla, a man trained to be a consummate warrior who gave up his own life saving thousands in the attacks on September 11, 2001. Inspired by the American soldiers he saw as a boy in Cornwall, England preparing to launch the Normandy invasion on what became D-Day, and his adult friendship with American fighting man Dan Hill, whom he meets in war-torn Rhodesia, Rescorla emigrates to the United States in the early 1960s to become a soldier and a "Yank," ultimately becoming a decorated platoon leader during the Vietnam War.

On September 11, 2001, as head of security for Morgan Stanley at Two World Trade Center, Rescorla is thrown to the floor when United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the South Tower. Amidst the unimaginable chaos that ensues, Rescorla uses his commanding presence and booming voice to literally sing his colleagues down smoke-filled stairs and out of the building. While he successfully evacuates all of his company’s 2,700 employees from the South Tower before it collapses, Rescorla makes the ultimate sacrifice when he goes back into the building to search for stragglers. Heart of a Soldier is an opera about a hero who disdains that very term, and about his deep friendship with an American soldier, so unlike him in approach and yet so similar in dedication and bravery.

Gockley said that on the surface the piece was about what it takes to be a true hero, but what would drive the music was the passion, the suspense and the ultimate tragedy.  Francesca Zambello added: "When I read James Stewart's true story of an unsung hero of 9/11, its epic themes of a warrior's code of honor, intense bonds of loyalty, late-found love and overwhelming tragedy struck me as extremely theatrical.  It also takes up ideas and ideals, morals and morality in the context of modern American lives. I have always wanted to create an opera based on a real life story and was very gratified when David Gockley agreed to develop this work with me."

These statements were meant to be reassuring but they didn't.  More often than not, a spate of new commissioned operatic works in the US are devoid of engaging dramatic situations and musically conservative in pseudo-hollywood ways.  I see quite a lot parallel between Heart of a Soldier and Doctor Atomic, which had stretches of gorgeous music but was dramatically very flat.  That project was more a presentation of a strong-willed director's idea (Peter Sellars), rather than the ideas of a dramatist and composer.  The central issue of Doctor Atomic was if the weather going to be too bad to detail the detonation of the first atomic bomb.  How interesting.  Adams, a truly amazing composer, unfortunately ignored the entreaties from then SF Opera general director Pamela Rosenberg, to compose a modern Faustian story.  Like Heart of a Soldier, Doctor Atomic had a love story as well - an absolutely non-essential one.  Doctor Atomic made a wonderful oratorio and home listening but didn't made a theater at all.  A golden opportunity wasted.  That said, even if the central issue is less obviously dramatic and less complex, it still might work well, if a character's obsession is presented dramatically - the smashing success of Jake Heggie's new opera for Dallas, Moby Dick, was a prime example.

But I am not confident in this creative team.  They all have some connections to one place and are of too much similar minds, thus the whole project smells like created by committee.  Gockley had presented many world premieres in Houston before but his record was impressive more for its sheer numbers.   Many of his commissioned works were just like television movies with generic and obvious scores.  He is a crowd pleaser but not cerebral enough to make real valuable contributions to modern lyric literature.

As for the music, I'm afraid that it falls to the same camp as Stewart Wallace's - lush, colorful, easy-listening and very cinematic but ultimately meandering and watery.  On-cue crescendos and spices of exotic sound designs could not prevent it from being bland.

Similarly, Doctor Atomic used electronic sounds as well but it neither added nor deduced - all the special effects could be achieved with traditional instrumentation.  This rely on electronic sounds has become a common folly of the modern composers.  Citing a master composer, who was not an intellectual but an instinct theater animal, Puccini, generated myriads local colors without any such electronic wizardry.

To sample Theofanidis's work, you can view below video of the ending of his orchestral concert work, Rainbow Body, which has been one of the most performed new orchestral works of the last ten years, having been performed by over 100 orchestras internationally. 

Related articles:
--> A Wasted Opportunity - on San Francisco Opera's New Commission "Heart of A Soldier"
--> Not Enough Drama, Love to Rescue - on San Francisco Opera's Commissions "Heart of A Soldier"
--> World Premiere Opera "Heart of A Soldier" and What Is a Tragedy

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