Heart of a Soldier premieres on Saturday, September 10 at the War Memorial Opera House, Susan Rescorla and Dan Hill will find themselves in the unusual position of seeing themselves depicted on stage. For the opera’s creators, Christopher Theofanidis and librettist Donna Di Novelli, having the people whose story they are telling in the audience is also a rare and rather nerve-wracking experience.
Opera News writer Patrick Dillon spoke to Chris and Donna about how they approached depicting real-life people, and also spoke to Susan Rescorla about how it feels to have her late husband’s story told in an opera, and about the bond that has formed between her and soprano Melody Moore, who will sing the role of Susan. Their stories so inspired Dillon that he ended up writing even more than the magazine had asked for and some of it ultimately could not be included because of space limitations. Not wanting any of this fantastic material to go to waste, we decided to share some of that excluded text here. Patrick’s feature on
Heart of a Soldier is in the September issue of
Opera News, so be sure to pick up a copy to read the rest of the story.
[Above: Rick Rescorla as a soldier in Vietnam in 1965. Photo by Peter Arnett/AP]
It’s no common thing to have the living, breathing prototypes of an opera’s characters making their own entrances and exits in its creators’ lives. There was no flesh-and-blood Turandot telling Puccini “I’m much nicer than that!”; nor did Henry Kissinger conduct diplomatic negotiations with John Adams and Alice Goodman over Nixon in China. But helping to give Heart of a Soldier a vital human beat, from very early on in the creative process, were the real-life Susan Rescorla and Dan Hill. “Meeting Susan and Dan was an important part of the process,” says librettist Donna Di Novelli. “But then we really needed to establish some distance, not to have them check over every utterance they make onstage.” Still, composer Christopher Theofanidis notes, “Donna felt a real responsibility to both those guys to get it right. Susan and Dan—and Rick—weren’t these mythological creatures, larger than life, out saving the world. They’re just normal human beings who found themselves in these crazy situations and responded amazingly well. I’m happy that we’ve gotten that feeling into the opera—that you could know these people very easily.”
The oddity of the situation struck both ways. “Chris and Donna visited me at my home,” Susan remembers, “six years ago, I think, and Dan just happened to be here at the time. They had already written something, and I sat and I listened and I really couldn’t comprehend. In the beginning there’d been documentaries done in England and over here, and interviews—Jane Pauley and The Man Who Predicted 9/11. And then Tim Robbins was interested, and thought that maybe he and Susan Sarandon would make a movie, and Jon Voight—there was talk that he was interested, too. And then of course all of that went dead. So you just listen and take it in and don’t think anything will come of it. And then with Chris and Donna, I kept thinking, How could this ever become an opera? Neither Dan nor I could really fathom what this was going to be like. [Below: Thomas Hampson, Susan Rescorla and Dan Hill pose with some design images from Heart of a Soldier. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
“But then I had the opportunity to go out to San Francisco last December, for the workshop, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. When Melody Moore started to sing—the words, the music—it was exactly the emotion I wanted to be portrayed. I was blown away.” (The composer concurred: when he first met Moore at those December workshops, and she sang Susan’s climactic second-act outburst, it was “one of the most affecting things I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing an artist perform.” “You’re a rock star!” Moore happily remembers him saying.) An instant bond—not dissimilar to the ones Rick Rescorla once formed with Dan and, three decades later, Susan—was felt by both Susan and her operatic double. “That woman is my soul sister,” Susan says. “I just love her.”
Moore’s reaction matched hers. “It was a sing-through of the entire opera, and in comes this fantastic little spitfire woman. We were singing through the first act, and I tried not to stare at her, but I wanted to catch her reactions to things, to see how she was feeling. So I thought that during the break I’d approach her. I went up to her gingerly—I didn’t want to invade her, I wanted to give her space. And she just looks at me and reaches up at me”—Moore is a full head taller—“and says, ‘Oh, thank God, you’ve got long legs—I’ve always wanted long legs!’ She knew just how to break the ice.” Susan’s account backs this up. “’My God,’ I said, ‘you’re tall, you’re beautiful, you have long hair, you’re young—you’re everything I could ever want to be!’ Her whole physical being was just fabulous.”
“We went to lunch that day and never stopped talking,” Moore recalls. “I didn’t go through what she did, but from my own life I do know about loss. I said to her, ‘I get you, I think—I know what it’s like to have space around the tragedy but not to have space in your heart around it.’ Sometimes it’s yesterday, and sometimes it strikes you and you just can’t breathe. Heart of a Soldier isn’t just the tragedy of 9/11—it’s about trauma, about grief.
“She gave the role over to me that first day. ‘You’re singing what I felt. There’s no need for us to even talk about how you’re going to play me. You got me. You know me. Just do what you do, honey!’ There’s still a lot of pressure, don’t get me wrong, but I know she believes in me, and as long as she does, I’m okay.”
Susan feels strongly, too, that Hampson’s the right man to play Rick: (Both the perpetually peripatetic Hampson and William Burden, who plays Dan, were otherwise engaged for the workshop.) “Thomas and his beautiful wife came to visit me at my house—he wanted to see Rick’s writing, he wanted to see pictures, he wanted to feel him. Before he left I said to him, ‘There couldn’t be anyone finer to sing this part, to portray this person.’”
That confidence was something Susan had already given to Theofanidis and DiNovelli. Early in the piece’s evolution, she urged them to incorporate “The White Rose,” one of Rick’s favorite Cornish songs, as a kind of theme, but they were insistent on finding their own equivalent –a decision she came to understand and respect. “It’s their music, Chris’s music and Donna’s words. It didn’t take long for me to realize that all the people involved in this are the best of their kind—the best of the best. I just completely trusted in whatever they wanted to do.”
She returns to those December workshops. “Donna and Francesca said to me, ‘You don’t have to stay the whole time,’ and [conductor] Patrick [Summers] came over and said the same thing. But I said, ‘You know I’m going to cry through the whole thing, but you’re not going to get rid of me. I want to hear it all.’ And I can’t get over how every single piece of it seems right. You know, Cornish men love to sing—they sing through every single thing that happens to them—and my husband loved to sing. When I met Rick he was always singing—in the car, in the shower, everywhere, even in the halls on 9/11. So what could be more apropos than this fabulous opera?”