Why have there been so many new operas based on current events or contemporary characters? Hopefully, the answer is that these incidents and people inspire composers to write what turns out to be their best music. And calculating producers like me feel the familiar subject matter, elevated as it has been to a mythical level through the power of the media, will deliver the audience into the theater. Advance knowledge of a subject can make a new opera more “friendly,” in the way star performers can attract people to see a piece they don’t know. So getting Tom Hampson to perform the lead role in an opera about 9/11 premiering on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 should succeed in capturing attention and delivering an audience. Very few events in recent years have elicited such feelings of horror, grief and empathy.
On the heels of the tragedy, the New York Philharmonic commissioned John Adams to compose On the Transmigration of Souls, a heartfelt and profound reaction to the events, at which point Adams said, “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.”
Cataclysmic world events have inspired many great works of art. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was a response to the death and heroism of the people of Leningrad as they withstood the Nazi onslaught in World War II. Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s The Disasters of War, Spielberg’s film Schindler's List, Fondakowski’s play The People’s Temple (about the Jonestown massacre), and Guterson’s book Snow Falling on Cedars (dealing with our government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II) are but a few examples of artists’ reactions to large-scale tragic events. In expressing themselves in this heightened way, they not only speak for themselves, they speak for all of us, providing a communal catharsis. Even isolated tragedies inspire artistic expression, like the central movement of Christopher Rouse’s Flute Concerto, which was inspired by the abduction and murder of a two-year old English boy, “a small token of remembrance for an innocent life senselessly and cruelly snuffed out.”
There were thousands of innocent lives snuffed out on September 11, 2001. We can’t fathom the senseless and hideous deaths the victims were forced to experience. We try in vain to feel the losses their loved ones have had to suffer. We can more easily celebrate the heroism of those who have saved others, often paying the ultimate price for their bravery. Heart of a Soldier
is our attempt to tell the story of one such hero, a person who selflessly takes responsibility for the well-being of others. [Above: Picasso’s Guernica
But popular subjects and heroic characters alone do not make good operas. In the end, is the music any good in its own right? In opera, music tells the story. The text provides the skeleton, music the flesh and blood. Twenty-five years after Adams’s Nixon in China told the “back story” of the Nixon/Kissinger visit to China in 1972, the opera has legs because of the composer’s brilliant score. Will Heart of a Soldier be this successful? Who knows. The important thing is to get these pieces launched with fanfare and good attendance, and then they are on their own! For better or worse, my career as an opera producer has been punctuated with many of these launches. My work will be judged by the quality of the pieces I have midwifed, and in most cases I will be long gone before the juries render their ultimate verdicts.