Wednesday, August 17, 2011

World Premiere Opera "Heart of A Soldier" and What Is a Tragedy

San Francisco Opera (SFOpera) is to present the World Premiere Production of Heart of a Soldier, with libretto by Donna di Novelli and music by Christopher Theofanidis, and was based on James Stewart's book of the true story of Rick Rescorla.  The opera is scheduled to be premiered on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City, in 2001.  It is to be staged by Francesca Zambello, who just triumphantly staged Wagner's Ring Cycle for SFOpera.

SFOpera's website summarized the opera thus:
What makes a hero? The question was never an academic one for Rick Rescorla, a British-born adventurer who fought in Vietnam before settling in New York as head of security for a brokerage firm based in the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, his extraordinary courage and calmness in a crisis paid off: Rescorla led all of the 2,700 people under his care to safety—literally singing them down the stairs—before heading back into the burning building for one last check. He never emerged.
This paragraph is a quiet philosophical musing.  I remembered that it was called a tragedy before but I cannot find the word on their website any more.  Online search led me to their cached earlier press release, which did describe the story as a tragedy:
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.

“For nearly a decade I have been hoping to commission an opera from the brilliantly talented Christopher Theofanidis,” stated David Gockley. “When there finally was a window of opportunity at Houston Grand Opera, I changed jobs and preliminary plans for Heart of a Soldier had to be put on hold.  Once in San Francisco, I felt the opportunity to commission this work in observation of the tenth anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11—and the commitment of Tom Hampson to create the lead role—gave the project critical mass.  On the surface the piece is about what it takes to be a true hero, but what will drive the music is the passion, the suspense and the ultimate tragedy.” [I changed the font to bold and italic so my reader can find it.]

Perhaps, it was with good reason that SFOpera stopped to describe the opera as a tragedy.  To me, Mr. Rescorla's story is moving, sad and with a heartbreaking and unhappy ending.  But is it tragedy and what is a tragedy?

Typically, in a loose sense, we call all sad stories tragedy.  But I prefer to limit the use to a narrower sense.

There are many definitions of tragedy but I think the first definition used by is the most pertinent:  

  1. a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction.
  2. the branch of the drama that is concerned with this form of composition.
  3. the art and theory of writing and producing tragedies.
  4. any literary composition, as a novel, dealing with a somber theme carried to a tragic conclusion.
  5. the tragic element of drama, of literature generally, or of life.
To me, tragedy is the destruction of something good, noble and/or beautiful, something people recognize as good, and ought to through the flaw(s) in character(s), otherwise, the stories can be sad and touching but hardly tragic.
Wagner's Ring Cycle is the tragic story of the gods, because due to their greediness, they brought disaster onto themselves and the world. 

Shakespeare wrote many tragedies.  Take his most famous ones such as Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet for example. The first three plays arrived their sad endings through the fatal flaws of the main characters, who were basically good and noble, but Hamlet was hesitate and indecisive, Othello was insecure and jealous, Macbeth was ambitious and easily manipulated.  Romeo and Juliet themselves perhaps had no such overt flaws, but taking their clans as a whole, we can see clearly that this is rather a conventional tragedy due to their inflexible hatred and thirst for revenge, they destroyed these two children they love, therefore the play was a tragedy for them collectively.

Back to the opera "Hear of A Soldier".  The more I read about it, the more I am convinced that it is a story of reassurance in humanity, and celebration of friendship, love and heroism, rather than the bemoaning a sad fate and event.

That is quite appropriate and it is how we should observe the event and honor the people who perished due to no fault of their own as individuals.

It we insist on treating 9/11 as a tragic event, then we have to examine ourselves collectively.  The event was the result of some religious zealot who bore obvious hatred of the U.S. for certain.  But, had we, the American people and the American government done something in the past contributing to the poverty, economic and environmental disasters, political corruptions and other humiliations to other parts of the world?  Couldn't we see something of ourselves in Wagner's chief god Wotan?  The answer can be nothing but yes.  Therefore, in a certain sense, the September 11 event in New York City could be partially, however significantly or insignificantly, be attributed to the flaws of our collected characters or behaviors, and that made the loss of so many lives on that fateful day tragic.

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

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