“Heart of a Soldier” creators hope the new opera’s personal story will transcend the 9/11 particulars at San Francisco Opera
There have been plays about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There have been poems and films, TV specials, art exhibits and books. John Adams won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for On the Transmigration of Souls, a piece for orchestra, chorus and electronics whose text includes fragments from heart-wrenching notes and fliers left at ground zero by families and friends desperate to find their missing loved ones.
Now comes an opera inspired by 9/11, Heart of a Soldier, which will have its world premiere Sept. 10 at the San Francisco Opera. Thomas Hampson heads the cast that also includes William Burden and Melody Moore in leading roles, with Patrick Summers, SFO’s principal guest conductor and music director of the Houston Grand Opera, conducting.
Opening literally on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the shorthand title for this work may well turn out to be “The 9/11 opera.” But the opera’s creative team — composer Christopher Theofanidis, librettist Donna Di Novelli and stage director Francesca Zambello — insist that its focus is not the attacks that shook Americans to their core. Based on a 2002 book of the same title by James B. Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Heart of a Soldier tackles something even deeper and more complex.
The story is a true one. The opera’s main characters are real people: Rick Rescorla, a former British mercenary, U .S. soldier and the security chief for a financial firm in the World Trade Center’s South Tower; his best friend and fellow soldier, Dan Hill; and Susan Rescorla, Rick’s second wife. Rescorla perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center, and this opera would not have existed had Stewart not written a book about the Rescorlas and Hill.
But those bringing Heart of a Soldier to the opera stage are aiming for the kind of transcendent, universal truths that opera — with its mix of music, words, movement and visuals — can explore so profoundly. The focal points are the deep bond between two men, trained as soldiers devoted to the highest ideals of heroism and integrity, and a deeply felt, romantic love that comes late in life and is tragically cut short.
“Opera is always a slice of history,” says Hampson who plays the lead role of Rescorla. “It’s a story driven by a human dilemma.” Those slices can reach from the mythological Greece of Orpheus and Euridice to the 19th century Paris of Mimi and Rodolfo. In the case of Heart of a Soldier, said Hampson, the history is, “metaphorically speaking, yesterday.’’ But the story it aims to tell is timeless.
The Heart of a Soldier project began to take shape nine years ago when Zambello and David Gockley, then general director of the Houston Grand Opera and now general director in San Francisco, were discussing future projects. James Stewart and Zambello were neighbors in upstate New York, where Zambello is general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival. She was impressed by his new book about Rick Rescorla, who had emerged as a true hero during the attacks in New York City. When planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the 62-year-old Rescorla, executive vice president of security for Morgan Stanley, managed to shepherd all but six of his company’s 2,700 employees from their offices high in the South Tower to safety. Going back to check for stragglers, he died when the tower collapsed around him.
Expanding on a story he wrote for The New Yorker, Stewart’s book told Rescorla’s colorful and moving life history. Born in 1939 in Cornwall, England, he had been dazzled as a child by the American GIs who gathered in his small town before shipping out for the D-Day landings in June 1944. Determined to be a soldier, Rescorla joined the British army in his teens. He met Hill, a Chicago-born American soldier, in 1961 while both were mercenaries looking for action in the Congo. Captivated by the ideals of soldiers as a band of brothers, they remained life-long friends, visiting each other often and speaking by phone virtually every day the rest of their lives.
Rescorla joined the U. S. Army, and like Hill, became a counterinsurgency and intelligence expert. With his charismatic personality and endearing tendency to break into Cornish folk songs when his men’s morale was low, he was a popular and effective officer. Rescorla fought in Vietnam, winning silver and bronze stars for his valor in battle as well as the Purple Heart and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star. After leaving the service in 1968, he studied creative writing, graduated from law school and took a series of security-related jobs before landing at the World Trade Center in 1984.
Rescorla’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1998, he met 56-year-old Susan Greer of Morristown, N.J., a lively, attractive mother of three grown children who was still recovering emotionally from her second divorce. Describing themselves as soul mates, Susan and Rick had three magical years together before his death.
To Zambello, Rescorla’s life seemed eminently operatic.
“I just thought it had a lot of the ingredients that make an opera,” she said. “Also, it had a bigger message, and I think that opera can have a bigger message, as it used to have in the 19th century.
“The two love stories: the connection of the two men — it felt very Greek and Classical, men who were connected around ideals. You think of [Verdi’s] Don Carlo and Rodrigo, [Gluck’s] Iphigenie en Tauride — this sense of brotherhood and ideals. And then there was the love story of Rick, who later in life meets his soul mate, Susan. I loved that it wasn’t Mimi and Rodolfo, but that it was a mature couple.”
Then based at the Houston Grand Opera, Gockley is deeply committed to presenting new works, bringing 35 world premieres to Houston before leaving after three decades in January 2006 for San Francisco. For Heart of a Soldier, he recruited Hampson and Theofanidis, whose resolutely tonal, lyrical music he came to admire through performances in Houston.
“Chris is someone who could write soaring, lyrical passages,” said Gockley. “He has a broad palette of expression, very rhythmical, very pulsating. In the course of an hour-and-a-half’s worth of music, you need a lot of different elements [to] make it continually interesting and surprising. I felt like Chris had the language to do that.”
Gockley’s move to San Francisco delayed the project, but by 2007 work on Heart of a Soldier began in earnest. Everyone involved understood that the topic was highly charged. Even a decade later, wounds from 9/11 still gnaw at the American psyche, even for those not directly involved in the tragedy.
“Immediately, the subject matter puts up red lights,’’ said Theofanidis. “ Could we do it in a way that would not make any of us uncomfortable with it?”
Stewart’s book jumps between Rescorla’s past and present, interspersing his story with those of Hill and Susan Rescorla. It’s a compelling read, but the structure wasn’t a good fit for the opera stage. Zambello had worked on several projects with Di Novelli, whose credits include productions at the New York City Opera and New York’s Public Theater. Once Di Novelli joined the team, a new outline for Heart of a Soldier began to emerge.
“The most important question for the librettist is the structure,” she said. “We talked about a lot of things. Was this going to be an all-male opera? Would it be an opera 55 minutes in length because that’s the time that Rick had to get everyone out of that building?
“The opera is certainly about his time running out too soon,’’ Di Novelli said. “But the strongest theme is about how Rick trains his heart, and every scene is about training.’’
Running slightly more than two hours with a single intermission, Heart of a Soldier is tautly structured. The audience will see Rick as a little boy in Cornwall awed by American soldiers and as a 20-something officer in Vietnam. Action depicting the World Trade Center evacuation will be abstract. The production features a unit set, and Zambello’s design team includes Peter J. Davison, sets; Jess Goldstein, costumes, and Mark McCullough, lighting. Projections, designed by S. Katy Tucker, will be a major scenic element.
Hollywood approached Stewart about making a movie of his book, said Theofanidis, but he refused. He had no reservations, however, about an opera based on Heart of a Soldier. “He said this is probably the best match for what Rick was about,” said Theofanidis. “Both Dan and Susan said they thought Rick would really love the idea of this.”
The best new operas, said Summers, have stories with “a timeless quality and also have a role for music as a story-telling device.”
Music is an especially appropriate vehicle for telling Rescorla’s story. He was famous for his spontaneous singing, whether socializing over a pint in a Cornwall pub or serenading his soldiers before battle. He sang ancient Cornish martial tunes for Morgan Stanley employees during the fire drills he insisted they take every other month. During the evacuation on 9/11, Rescorla sang through a bullhorn as he steered his colleagues down the South Tower’s hot, smoky stairways. Survivors said the sound of Rescorla’s familiar songs helped them stay calm.
Theofanidis’ score reflects the music that resonated throughout Rescorla’s life.
“It has Chris’s hallmark rhythmic propulsion and lyricism,’’ said Summers. “But this piece spans such a long time period, which is always very, very tricky for the stage. We go from 1944 to 2001, and Chris has so wonderfully captured the musical feeling of each era without writing any pastiche. The Vietnam scene is filled with harmonies of the 1960s; you can just hear that world. It’s an evocation, not an illustration.”
Writing an opera is audacious, no matter what the subject. Writing an opera about such a resonant and recent event as 9/11 is more audacious still. But Heart of a Soldier adds one extra pressure point.
“More audacious for me personally,” said Theofanidis, “is telling these people’s lives, two of whom are going to be at the premiere.”
Like others involved with the project, Melody Moore spent a lot of time talking with Susan Rescorla, whom she portrays in the opera. Moore was initially concerned about getting all of the woman’s physical and emotional details right.
“Actually, just the opposite happened,” said Moore. “She didn’t give me a lot of instruction. She didn’t impose anything. She just said, ‘I’m so honored by your project.’ She gave me a completely open opportunity in which to find what she was like.
“She, more than anything, wants her husband’s story told,” said Moore. “So it’s wonderful to play someone who is alive. It’s not as restricted as I thought it would be. In fact it’s a wide-open palette with which to paint.”
Moore recalls her first encounter with Rescorla. The singer was on stage, midway through a workshop of the production last December, when her real-life counterpart arrived.
“I couldn’t even go meet her,’’ said Moore. “ I just had to buck up and sing the part. I couldn’t dare look at her; I was afraid she might be crying, and then I would start crying. I just pretended she wasn’t there.”
When the workshop was over, Rescorla offered her opinion. Barely five feet tall, she looked up at Moore, who stands close to six feet barefoot.
“She said, ‘Oh, honey, you’re beautiful. I always wanted long legs. I’m so happy right now,’ Moore recalled. “She broke all the heavy energy with that one joke.”
If Heart of a Soldier turns out as its creators hope, San Francisco audiences will feel the almost mystical bond between Dan and Rick, a true pair of brothers in arms. And they will feel the joy and pain of married love, finally attained and then cruelly lost.
“This is not an opera about 9/11 or the military,” said Hampson. “Rick Rescorla died a loved and loving man.”
Heart of a Soldier opens at San Francisco Opera Sept. 10 and runs through Sept. 30. sfopera.com; 415-864-3330.