Backstage at San Francisco Opera > September 2011 > Teaching Heart of a Soldier
Teaching Heart of a Soldier
As I teach libretto writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, I’ve been asked what lessons I would draw for my own students from "Heart of a Soldier".
Since my approach to writing has always been structural, I chose three moments in the first act as formal examples of how to adapt and make dramatic a work of journalism, as well as the very structure of the act and the reaction to the opera as a whole.

Of utmost importance is the creation of entrances for your main characters. We meet Dan Hill, who will become the best friend of Rick Rescorla, floating in the sky, airborne--in ecstatic anticipation of the wars that await him below. When I talked with the real Dan Hill, he spoke about the joy of skydiving and joining the U.S. Army to be a jumper--a role he shared with Jimi Hendrix, by the way. Instead of simply describing the feeling of weightlessness as he related it to me, we wanted to show a character who is always training, always prepared for battle. “The sky becomes my war room...” Dan sings as he falls through the air, “for I’ve daggers in my boots and wings instead of arms.” Later those daggers come out in a fight scene with Rick, an indication of his fierce, bad-ass nature.
In the same way, we nudged the truth in order to give Rick Rescorla a strong entrance. We hear about him first from Tom, the bartender, before we see him, thus creating the essence of his character through a dramatic delay. “It’s not any man who reads Karl Marx while guzzling his rum...” Certainly not any Joe, nor any average soldier. Enter Rick, carried into the bar on the shoulders of his men, full of rowdy bonhomie, and ready for a fight.

We know from the nonfiction book by James B. Stewart that Rick Rescorla sang to his troops in Vietnam and encouraged them to sing to each other. What that singing consisted of was Cornish ballads, fighting and march songs. The composer, Christopher Theofanidis, and I had already created a Cornish battle song for the beginning of the show, which we would reintroduce at the very end of the opera, so we didn’t want to overuse that convention. There are times you need to go outside the source material to other primary sources. Research led me to the Army Alphabet, that beautiful acrophonic system to insure that radio communications were accurately heard. Most of us know of Bravo and Charlie companies named for the letters B and C. I have always been entranced with the sounds of the lesser used letters, and so I looked at what would make up the very word S.I.N.G. Sierra. India. November. Golf. We used those words to give Rick and the troops a song about singing in the depths of the Vietnam jungle. “Sing Sierra....sing India....”
In order to feel the loss embedded in war, we created the Beloveds back home, who in wartime can only write letters and pray they receive one in return. Without resorting to the “Dear Love” letter or the “Dear John” letter, we wanted to touch on the nature of youthful romance, devoid of sentimentality. “We disregard the sentimental, because it is untrue” is a lesson I learned early on in my own graduate studies at Brown University. Juliet, who writes to a Tom who is already dead, sings, “I can only pray a selfish prayer...come home to me. You alone to me alone....the rest of the world can go to hell.”
When cataclysmic events occur, the structure must reflect that change. To a certain extent, the “loss and thrill” of war is expected in this story of soldiering. What becomes a rift in the fabric of the narrative occurs when Rick must part ways with his true friend and companion, Dan. When Dan converts to Islam, the structure that has reflected the rat-a-tat-tat of battle and military training is broken.
We are at Rick’s boisterous wedding, saturated with liquor and lust, when Dan hears an Islamic call to prayer. An imam, high up in a minaret, sings as Dan remembers him from his time in Beirut. Dan moves out of the wedding party and into a mosque. Time and place overlap, we are simultaneously here and there. Dan brings us into his memory as he moves toward his future. Rick tries to pull his best friend back into his own tried and true reality: marriage and a family. The center breaks. The stage splits. The structure, aptly called surreal, becomes more than one reality: the passed-out party guests on one side and the Muslim devotees on the other. The curtain falls on division. When we return to Act II, the structure will be radically different—almost Aristotelian in its setting and action. We move inexorably toward September 11, the day that Rick has trained for all his life. We no longer have a structure that moves quickly from one battle to another. Now the opera will stay in one place, the new war zone: New York and its environs. And yet through most of the second act, despite what we know is coming, the score is full of humor and lightness; tango lessons and the glory of a blue sky.
Don’t think you know what you are writing before you write it, and don’t expect to understand how the work will be received. I expected a negative reaction from the military without having distinguished in my mind veterans from Pentagon and Department of Defense officials, the voice and face of so many governmental positions. A line that ends Act I, sung by Rick, gives his reasons for not joining Dan Hill in Afghanistan to fight again: “I won’t do it anymore. All that loss again. Orders from superiors who aren’t.” Yet we found in the numerous discussions after the show that is was the veterans who embraced the opera wholeheartedly. It’s an old adage that a president who’s been in the front lines will be more cautious about sending troops into battle, and we found that the veterans we spoke with understood Rick’s position vis-à-vis the military as much as they understood his bond with his comrades and his despair at losing his men. When the soldiers in the opera attempt civilian life, their refrain is, “What do we do with these bloody, bloody hearts?” In fact, again and again after each show, Chris and I were met with the gratitude of veterans with tears in their eyes who understood this uneasy, if not impossible, transition. We were told by young people that an uncle or a father who had never spoken about their war experiences opened up after witnessing "Heart of a Soldier". This was the most gratifying surprise in a journey of many unexpected discoveries. We learned about courage by writing about fear; we learned about patriotism by critiquing authority; and we learned about the heroism of many, many soldiers by writing about one common man.

After our workshop in December, Chris and I spoke with Thomas Hampson who wondered if we weren't missing an opportunity in the second act.  After we thought about it, we created an aria ("For we fought side by side..") for Rick as he says farewell to his close friend, Dan.  Although they don't know it at the time, they will not see each other again.  During the rehearsal process, Patrick Summers, our maestro, took us out for drinks --- and one should always pay attention over Martinis-- and suggested we expand the aria to be a moment where the real "Heart of a Soldier" is revealed.  The result gave the opera its arguably strongest dramatic moment.  The lesson here for all writers: surround yourselves with brilliant collaborators. 

[All photos by Cory Weaver.]
Posted: 9/30/2011 10:26:20 AM by Donna Di Novelli (Librettist, Heart of a Soldier)
Filed under: HeartOfASoldier, text


Backstage at San Francisco Opera is a fascinating, fast-moving, mysterious and sacred space for the Company’s singers, musicians, dancers, technicians and production crews. Musical and staging rehearsals are on-going, scenery is loaded in and taken out, lighting cues are set, costumes and wigs are moved around and everything is made ready to receive the audience. From the principal singers, chorus and orchestra musicians to the creative teams for each opera, in addition to the many talented folks who don’t take a bow on stage, this blog offers unique insight, both thought-provoking and light-hearted, into the life backstage at San Francisco Opera.


Blog postsRSS