It’s been ten years since the World Trade Center attack. Is it too soon for an opera?
I think not, especially one done as carefully and wonderfully as Heart of a Soldier, a new opera commissioned by the San Francisco Opera.
It is based on the life of Rick Rescorla, the head of security at Morgan Stanley in New York City. When the World Trade Center was hit, this man helped evacuate over 2,700 office workers. When he returned into the building to help guide more men and women out, the tower collapsed. The former soldier was one of the many killed by terrorists on that September 11th.
What makes Rick’s story even more amazing – at least to me – is that America was his adopted country. He was born in Cornwall, and as a child during WWII he was friendly with the U. S. soldiers stationed in his hometown. As an adult, he became a U. S. citizen and fought in the Vietnam War before retiring to civilian life.
The first act of the opera revolves around war and battles – men fighting in Normandy during WWII, Rick and his fellow soldiers at war in Vietnam, and the terrorist attack in 2001. It’s pretty violent for an opera; unlike the gentlemanly soldier of most operas, who wave a sword around the stage for a minute but otherwise does little moving, the soldiers are constantly running around the stage, doing pushups, getting blown up…y’know. Good stuff like that. In fact, in a talk I saw the director at one point mentions that she made sure to cast extras with ripped abs, because “if you can’t believe these men are soldiers, the whole premise falls apart.” Plus, y’know, the eye candy factor never hurts. If you’re going to have soldiers grunting and sweating, of course it would be nice to have them do so with no shirts on.
The second act of the opera, when Rick has settled into a nice suburban life, is quite different. What is opera without a romance? Since Rick Rescorla remarried in middle age and had only been with his wife a short time before he was killed, the opera focuses on their story. It’s actually very sweet, all the more so because you know Rick’s widow is in the audience, probably bawling her eyes out at every performance. (I mean, I would.) This celebration of a simple life contrasts perfectly with the black-and-white gore of war, providing a grounding force for Rick’s oversized heroism.
The flaw of the English language is that it simply doesn’t sound beautiful when sung operatically. Compared to the musicality of Italian or the seductive power of French, English operas always sound clunky and harsh. While I believe the creators did their absolute best with the libretto, it always sounds a bit grating and blocky. The musical score, though, is extremely accessible. It reminded me of a movie soundtrack; when the emotions swell, so too does the music. It worked extremely well with this most American of stories.