History into drama in 9/11 opera 'Heart of a Soldier' 

"Heart of a Soldier" is a mighty effort to do the impossible.

The new San Francisco Opera production has been dubbed the "9/11 opera," but the team creating it did its best to focus on characters against the background of the destruction of the World Trade Center instead of producing a musical documentary or homage.

Circumstances surrounding Saturday's world premiere at the War Memorial Opera House, on the eve of the event's tenth anniversary, didn’t mitigate difficulties arising from the challenge of distilling history into drama. The performance opened with the singing of the National Anthem while a gigantic image of Old Glory filled the curtain, and ROTC students in uniform handed out programs.

Among General Manager David Gockley's numerous "CNN opera" commissions of productions dealing with modern themes, this comes closest to being realized in a setting of photographs, rather than paintings. Its topic is still too fresh and too real.

Yet if reality can be ignored, the work is among the best contemporary operas. Christopher Theofanidis' music is tonal and accessible, and has the harmonic beauty of a 1940s soundtrack by Erich Korngold.

Donna Di Novelli's libretto telling the true story of 9/11 hero Rick Rescorla is excellent, especially in the second act’s romance between Rick and his wife Susan, both in their 50s.

Under Patrick Summers’ direction, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra played the rich score of large gestures with certainty; Francesca Zambello's stage direction and Peter J. Davison's sets also were outstanding.
Thomas Hampson as Rescorla, a Vietnam veteran who died heading the successful evacuation of all but six of 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees when the one of the World Trade towers collapsed sang with power and sustained presence.
William Burden as fellow veteran and best friend Daniel J. Hill, and Melody Moore as Susan were Hampson's equals. (Both Susan Rescorla and Hill were in Saturday’s audience.)

The huge cast, including many Merola and Adler singers and alumni, was mostly successful in being heard over the orchestra's storms. Among outstanding performances: Nadine Sierra in two roles, Henry Phipps as Rescorla at age 10, and Mohannad Mchallah as a muezzin who leads calls to prayer from a minaret.

The first act -- which traces Rescorla's life from his childhood in England, to fighting as a British soldier in Rhodesia, to leading a platoon in Vietnam -- is relentlessly driving; both music and drama saturated to a fault. The quiet second act has a different pace and feel, and even provides some laughs.

The end is genuinely dramatic. The towers’ collapse is depicted with lights and a storm of falling paper, and the eerie music, free of bombast, has great impact.

At the finale and in several other points -- placed against the numbing "action" of the first act -- Gockley's response to the challenge of realizing an opera for still-unhealed wounds rings true.

In program notes, Gockley quotes John Adams, whose "On the Transmigration of Souls" was performed by the New York Philharmonic on the first anniversary of 9/11:

"Music has the singular capacity to unlock people's imprisoned emotions, and bring us face to face with our raw uncensored, unattenuated feelings. That is why during times when we are grieving or seeking to get in touch with the core of our beings, we seek out those pieces that speak to us with that sense of gravitas and serenity."

That, at least, was the goal.



Heart of a Soldier

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 27 and Sept. 30, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13 and Sept. 21, 2 p.m. Sept. 18 and Sept. 24

Tickets: $26 to $330

Contact: (415) 864-3330; www.sfopera.com


About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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