Early on, we see Rick as a little boy in Cornwall, England, pleading with the American GI’s going to Normandy to stay with him in Cornwall and not go away. One of the soldiers tells him that in order to be a soldier you have to ‘train your heart to not give out,’ and saying goodbye is part of that.
Years later, Rick comes into a makeshift military bar in Rhodesia, where he is now a leader of some British troops. He has just killed a lion that was threatening the local villagers, and in an African ritual, has smeared the lion’s blood all over himself. For the Africans, when a lion dies, you must take in his strength and carry it forward as part of yourself. This symbolic ritual becomes important throughout the opera.
In Vietnam, in the Battle of X-Ray, Rick loses one of his men, Tom the medic, who is an innocent. This affects Rick deeply, and he performs the lion’s ritual with Tom’s blood, taking in his goodness and strength and carrying it forward. [Above: Christopher Theofanidis and members of San Francisco Opera's music staff consult at an early rehearsal. Photo by Kristen Loken.]
The other protagonist in the opera, the American Dan Hill, sees things differently than Rick. He knows he must stay focused on his work. He cannot allow himself to care as much as Rick does about the individual lives of each of his men, because in the moments where he inevitably loses one of them, really knowing them would make the weight ‘too heavy for any man to carry.’
In the two final scenes of the opera, Susan Rescorla (Rick’s late love of his life) sings as Rick ascends the World Trade Center tower one last time, “This isn’t the heart I was born with. It’s the soldier’s heart I mourn with. It beats with your rhythm, it’s filled with your song.” She in that moment is carrying forward all the strength and resolve that Rick has lived. She is the better and deeper for it.
Dan and Susan a few days later are at the base of the fallen towers, and there they perform the lion’s ritual- taking all of the paper ashes that are everywhere around them, and washing them over their bodies. They carry forward the strength, memory, and heart of all of those who are lost. [Above: Daniel J. Hill and Susan Rescorla after the premiere of Heart of a Soldier. Photo by Claudine Gossett.]