Karl Eikenberry is a retired United States Army Lieutenant General and former United States Ambassador to Afghanistan. At the invitation of San Francisco Opera Board Chairman, John Gunn, he and his wife attended a recent performance of Heart of a Soldier. Now a distinguished fellow with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, Eikenberry felt compelled to write down his thoughts after the performance.
This past weekend, my wife and I watched the Saturday matinee performance of Christopher Theofanidis’s and Donna Di Novelli’s “Heart of a Soldier” at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.
Familiar with James B. Stewart’s excellent book that describes the life of Rick Rescorla, British-born American soldier, citizen, and hero of the 9-11 tragedy, I was curious as to how art in any form – especially opera – could adequately convey to an audience intense experiential human drama such as friendships forged during shared times of crises or the dilemmas faced by those who must in a split second decide whether to dare sacrifice for the many or to live on for those who are most near and dear.
My own background increased further my curiosity. After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, I wore an Army uniform for 36 years to include two tours of duty in Afghanistan; more recently after my military career, I was our nation's ambassador to Kabul. And I was in the Pentagon on 9-11 when American Airlines Flight 77 struck just below my office. [Above: Ambassador Eikenberry giving thumb's up to an American soldier.]
Suffice it to say, that while not an opera aficionado, I have seen enough to wonder in advance if the medium was agile enough to well capture difficult life lessons drawn over space and time, some particular to the profession of arms.
My apprehension about the scope and complexity of this operatic enterprise proved misplaced; I greatly underestimated Mr. Theofanidis’s and Ms. Di Novelli’s abilities to brilliantly translate for a wider audience what I considered to be motivations and inner feelings only to be understood by those who have “been there.”
[Above: Karl Eikenberry exiting a US Army Blackhawk helicopter]
In the brief span of a little over two hours, the story and the music persuasively presented the unique bonds that develop between comrades-in-arms, the balance (as Rick's friend Dan says) between "the thrills and losses” in war, and commanders trying to mitigate the pain of combat losses by convincing themselves of the justness of the conflict in which they are engaged (which ultimately Rick is not able to do in the context of the Vietnam War – but the dilemma remains in Iraq and Afghanistan). There were other important “soldier themes” well told – of spouses with husbands (I should add wives in today’s Armed Forces) married not only to them, but to their military careers as well. Duty to organization juxtaposed to duty to family.
I was stunned that I was so taken by “Heart of a Soldier.” The stage management and stagecraft were most creative and achieved the desired effect of stimulating the audience’s imagination. The costumes were realistic. The performers were totally committed to playing out their roles and were convincing. But good cinemas or plays could provide the same. [Above: Karl Eikenberry in Wardak Province, Afghanistan]
What made “Heart of a Soldier” uniquely work was that it was an opera. Several years ago my wife and I invited our good friend Hao Jiang Tian, the internationally renowned Chinese American singer with the Metropolitan Opera, to our home in Brussels after watching one of his typically superb performances as Philip II in “Don Carlos” in nearby Liege. Tian and his wife Martha joined us for a July Fourth Independence Day “block party” attended by mostly European friends. Late in the afternoon, I asked Tian to sing for the participants our National Anthem, which he did enthusiastically, seriously, and with consummate skill. There was hardly a dry eye of those in attendance when he concluded in his powerful basso cantante voice.
I asked Tian later if he was surprised how he so moved a group of Europeans who mostly could not understand the subtleties of the verses they listened to. He unhesitatingly replied “no” and explained that song is the most powerful form of communication between humans across cultures and languages. Hao finished saying: “Karl, if you really want to convey the dramas and complexities of life, and if you really want to inspire, sing.” [Above: Karl Eikenberry in Uruzgan Privince, Afghanistan with tribal leaders]
I recalled Tian’s words of wisdom when I saw the curtain come down at War Memorial Opera House this past weekend. In fact, I am sure that Rick would have agreed with Tian's maxim, for this is why he sang to his soldiers in the Vietnam jungles and to his frightened co-workers in the South Tower on September 11, 2001.
“Heart of a Soldier” recounts many life stories, and courage is a prominent theme. But I would like to also salute the courage of Christopher Theofanidis, Donna Di Novelli, the cast, production crew, and orchestra that together have created a singular work in a most unconventional way, doing honor not only to the subjects, but to the great operatic tradition. In the end, the artist must first and foremost connect with the audience, and not the critic. "Heart of a Soldier" makes those connections in spades and the Bay Area should be proud of the accomplishment of their San Francisco Opera. [Above: Karl Eikenberry at a bazaar in Afghanistan]