World Premiere Review: Hampson’s Heroic “Heart of a Soldier” at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2011

The world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ new opera “Heart of a Soldier”, took place at the War Memorial Opera House, itself dedicated to the heroes of World War I, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City.

The opera, the third San Francisco Opera commission during the general directorship of David Gockley, like the two predecessors Philip Glass’ “Appomattox” (see The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part I: Glass’ “Appomattox” – October 14, 2007) and Stewart Wallace’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” (see Brilliant “Bonesetter’s Daughter” Dazzles at San Francisco Opera – September 20, 2008), was based on documentary material about the actual lives of real people. Like the other two, the opera employed multimedia and theatrical effects, sung to always accessible, often melodic, music.

The subject of James B. Stewart’s biography Heart of a Soldier, the immediate source material for the opera, is a Cornish-born naturalized American, Cyril “Rick” Rescorla. Donna di Novella, the librettist, pieced together biographical material about Rescorla, his widow and his best friend.

An ex-soldier, experienced in Britain’s war in Northern Rhodesia and America’s war in Vietnam, Rescorla, played in the opera by superstar baritone Thomas Hampson, became Vice President of security for the investment banking firm, Morgan Stanley, which occupied several floors of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.

[Below: Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Suspicious of the official line of the safety of his firm’s personnel in the event of an act of terrorism (efforts to destroy the World Trade Center had taken place the previous decade), he rigorously trained the firm’s employees in how to escape from the building during any potential disaster.

The opera’s denouement is indeed the attack and the escape of the firm’s employees. As a result of Rescorla’s safety drills, when his methods were employed to effect an escape from the doomed building, virtually all of his firm’s thousands of employees survived, while those of other firms perished. Obsessed with leaving no one in his charge behind, he returned to the building to his death.

[Below: Peter J. Davison’s set representing the World Trade Center South Tower, from which the employees of Rescorla’s firm have escaped safely.]

Heart of an Opera

However, most of the opera is concerned with the exploration of the motivations that led Rick Rescorla to save so many people, while perishing himself. In his first meeting with Susan, the woman who was to become first his wife, then his widow, Rick opines “No one gets to be fifty without some kind of back story”. Rick’s backstories and those of his war buddy, Daniel J. Hill (Dan), are what comprise most of the opera.

The reconstruction of Rescorla’s life and his ways of thinking about the obligations of a soldier in war to his comrades in arms is both the subject of the source book and the heart of this opera.

Hill and Rescorla first met and bonded in British Colonial protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (present day Zambia), where Dan recruited Rick to attend the United States Army Officer Training School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Dan proved to be an ex-CIA operative, who became a Muslim convert who enlisted with the Muhajadeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Russians.

[Below: Dan Hill (William Burden, center in red beret) Rick Rescorla (Thomas Hampson, center, wrestling with Burden) meet at the Bravado bar in Northern Rhodesia, where they become lifelong friends; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]

Having become an American officer, Rescorla made clear to all his conviction that you saved your own, and, in Vietnam, contradicted orders from above to lead his men on a mission that successfully saved Hill and his platoon. Imparting the discipline and attitudes exhibited in Vietnam in his safety drills at the World Trade Center, is what led to the rescue of thousands of persons who were otherwise doomed.

Notes on the Performance

There is much to admire in the presentation of the opera. The three principals – Thomas Hampson (Rick), William Burden (Dan) and Melody Moore (Susan) created vivid, likeable characters. The music composed for them and the supporting cast was always interesting and accessible, with more distant antecedents in the vocal works of Benjamin Britten and closer ones in the contemporary Broadway musical.

Conducted by Patrick Summers, the lighting designer was Mark McCullough. The technical creative team included Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker and Sound Designer Tod Nixon.

Since the opera was concerned with snapshots from the only loosely intertwined lives of three individuals, the resulting opera was inevitably episodic. As an example, a scene in which a platoon of Americans leave the boy Rick’s Cornish village for their fatal destiny during the Invasion of Normandy is juxtaposed with a scene of Dan in a parachute on a behind-the-lines CIA operation in Lebanon.

The supporting cast included Nadine Sierra, Susannah Biller, Sara Gartland, Maya Lahyani, Sally Mouzon, Carole Schaffer, Trevor Scheunemann, Ta’u Pupu’a, Michael Sumuel, Wayne Tigges, Henry Phipps, David Gustafson, Christopher Jackson, William Pickersgill, Jere Torkelsen, Mohannad Mchallah, Daniel Snyder abd David Gustafson.

[Below: William Burden as Daniel J. Hill, a CIA operative who is Rick Rescorla’s warbuddy and soul-mate; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As a theatrical experience, the opera works well. The use of projections, for years a feature of much of stage director Francesca Zambello’s work, was as skillful and absorbing as any I’ve ever seen. Episodic though the opera may be, the short scenes flow swiftly one into another. Each adds a bit of evidence to the core ideas – If every man takes responsibility for the man next to him, and keeps him safe, and makes sure he’s not left behind, we’ll survive! We must stay fit and prepare ourselves for what comes!

It’s a relatively short piece (two hours ten minutes including an intermission) and there’s not much in it that one would find uninteresting or dull. However, because death from hostile acts is a constant theme of the opera, some may find the subject matter too disturbing.

The San Francisco audience greeted the work with a standing ovation. It was a clearly a theatrical success, again demonstrating the ability of the opera company to mount a gripping, dramatic show.

[Below: Susan (Melody Moore) and her dog; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

David Gockley in the opera’s program, asked and answered (or, more properly, evaded) the question. “Will Heart of a Soldier be successful? Who knows?” The odds are against any new opera, and this has been the case for centuries. It is rare these days for a new opera even to be produced, much less repeated with sufficient performances and different productions to create an audience loyal to that work, ready to see the opera again and again.

But as a contribution to the solemn observations of the acts of 9/11, it is a thoroughly appropriate monument to the concept of self-sacrifice for the greater good. One can imagine this piece being shown in the two major cities that experienced these acts directly, and then being revived from time to time on the major anniversary dates of that day of horrors.

For my interview with stage director Francesca Zambello, see: Born to the Theater: An Interview with Francesca Zambello.

For my review of a previous appearance of Thomas Hampson in San Francisco, see: Hampson Transcends Quirky “Macbeth” in S. F. – November 18, 2007.

For my review of a previous performance by Melody Moore, see: Toby Spence Stars in Des McAnuff’s Rousing ENO Production of Gounod’s “Faust” – London, October 14, 2010.

For my reviews of previous performances by William Burden, see: Countdown to Britten Centennial: Conlon, Racette and Burden Impress in Enigmatic “Turn of the Screw” – March 12, 2011, and also,

Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008, and also,

The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part IV: “The Rake’s Progress” – December 9, 2007.