An interview with composer Christopher Theofanidis and librettist Donna Di Novelli
It feels as though there is a higher calling for this project. The substance of the story is so beautiful. The people, whose lives are the starting point, are so admirable. Everyone involved in the project has been very focused. We really want to get the story right.—Christopher Theofanidis
Members of the creative and stage management teams for Heart of a Soldier in rehearsal
(photo by Kristen Loken)
In 2003, director Francesca Zambello gave David Gockley a copy of James B. Stewart’s book, Heart of a Soldier, the story of Rick Rescorla, his best friend Dan Hill, and his wife Susan Rescorla that ends with the attacks on the World trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. Gockley, general director of Houston Grand Opera at the time, felt immediately that it contained the elements of an opera. Known for his commitment to new works, Gockley stated, “Among the many challenges an opera company faces, the most daunting is to introduce a brand-new work. [Yet,] we have a responsibility to refresh the repertory. Heart of a Soldier had the bones of an opera. it was a story that attracted music, that could be musically mythologized.” The project was launched with composer Christopher Theofanidis, librettist Donna Di Novelli, conductor Patrick Summers, and Zambello. When Gockley became general director of San Francisco Opera in 2006, he brought the project with him.
It’s not far into Stewart’s book that it becomes obvious what Gockley and Zambello saw in the story. The themes of the greatest operas—honor, duty, love, death—are present from the beginning. The story’s resemblance to Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and Verdi’s Don Carlo is striking. Yet it is really a tale of three complex people and their relationships: the life-long friendship of two warriors, and the loved shared by a couple who found each other late in life. Dan and Rick’s story begins in Africa, where they met as hired soldiers; it continues to Vietnam, where they fought for the American forces; it ends in New York where, as head of security for Morgan Stanley at two World trade Center, Rick led the company’s 2,700 employees to safety, literally singing them down forty flights of stairs. He returned to the building to see if he could assist others, but within moments it collapsed, and Rick was never seen again.
Christopher Theofanidis (right) and members of the Company's
music staff in rehearsal (photo by Kristen Loken)
Recently, a day after the first complete run-through of the opera, Theofanidis and Di Novelli talked about transforming the story into an opera. They were both pleased by the progress of the rehearsals and overwhelmed by hearing the entire piece for the first time. “As much as you know what is coming at the end, it takes your breath away,” says Di Novelli. “The end is devastating. We said at the beginning, we were not going to write a ‘9/11’ opera. We wanted to be true to who rick was throughout his life. But, that was where his life ended. From the beginning, speaking with Francesca, we all agreed we would never show any actual pictures of the attacks; it would all be stylized and abstract. We were not going to exploit the images that everyone has seen so many times.”
“Opera is the biggest commitment a composer can make,” says Theofanidis. “The process of creating an opera goes on for years, so you really have to care about the subject. As an artist, I could only commit to writing an opera about something that was important to me philosophically, that I cared about in my deepest core. The friendship of these two characters resonated with me; it reminded me of my closest friend growing up. Rick and Dan were full of bravado, but at their core were very modest, decent human beings. The way they lived their lives made me want to invest my energy into this story. I felt like I could bring something personally to it, in terms of the musical representation of the story.
“At first,” Theofanidis continues, “it was a matter of defining priorities in terms of presentation. For our purposes, the story was complicated with the different time periods and the number of locales. How do you manage all that, and stay focused on developing the characters? What do you want to show the audience? What needs to be seen and heard?”
“Donna and I clicked from the beginning,” says Theofanidis. “It’s scary to open it up to another person, but it’s an important part of a process you have to grow into. I think we were both surprised that by trusting each other, as well as the other collaborators, we were able to come up with something that we couldn’t have done on our own. The ideal collaboration is one that allows you to keep your integrity and uniqueness, but which takes you individually somewhere you couldn’t get alone. David and his staff, Francesca, and Patrick were all part of the development. Then tom [Hampson] came in, and he had many great ideas. With all these strong personalities, you worry about it getting diluted by too much input. But, I really feel that the best ideas were filtered out. Tom, Bill [Burden], and Melody [Moore] were so invested in these people’s lives, writing and talking to them, and bringing a level of detail and realism to the story that really has made a difference. Patrick and Francesca are the ideal people to have involved also. They have done many new works and are really used to this process.”
WIlliam Burden (Dan Hill) and Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla)
(photo by Cory Weaver)
“When you read Jim’s book,” says Di Novelli, “you realize that what’s missing is the music. Music was part of Rick’s tradition and heritage. He was sustained by music throughout his life. Rick is such a complex character. He was a hard drinker. He married the wrong woman the first time. He and Dan had this incredible bond, and then the surprise is that there was this sort of transfer of his heart to Susan. She went through her own journey. She became more than she was before she met Rick.
“This has been a learning experience for me from the beginning, a discovery process,” explains Di Novelli. “I did a lot of reading about soldiers. I wanted to know what makes a soldier. Who would want to be a soldier? Where does the honor lie? Going back in time, reading about chivalry, I thought about this pair. What fascinates us about the warrior, and not only about the warrior, but about two warriors and the bond they share? I thought about America, which is so much about the lone hero. What is interesting about Rick’s story is that he wasn’t the lone warrior. For him, what mattered was the ‘sweaty guy to your left.’
“My first job as a librettist was to inspire Chris. At one point, we wondered how to deal with the language—what should be spoken and what should be sung. The aria and choral numbers were determined by the demands and desires of the music—how to expand a given dramatic moment musically. At the same time, we wanted to use as much dialogue as we could from Jim’s book, because of how strongly it defined the characters. Additionally, we were able to interview Dan and Susan for material that worked its way into the opera. It’s difficult to discuss how we transformed and created dramatic moments in the opera, but one example is rick’s second act aria, ‘Marathon.’ We knew from the book that when rick said goodbye to Dan the last time they saw each other (‘Don’t go dying on me’), it was his final farewell. We wanted to give more weight to this moment. Throughout the piece we had been using the theme that both men believed soldiers were resurrected throughout history. So, using the type of literate language rick favored, I ‘created’ this aria in collaboration with Chris.”
Melody Moore (Susan Rescorla)
and Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla)
(photo by Cory Weaver)
“What music does very well is create a feeling around something,” says Theofanidis. “With melody and harmony, you can take what is intangible about a person or an event, what it might take a bunch of adjectives to describe, and capture it with music. “Personally, I try not to think about musical style,” says Theofanidis. “The more I think about it, the more it makes me become too aware of what I’m doing, to the detriment of project. Over the past twenty years, there’s been a major shift in thinking about musical style or language. When I was in school, if you wrote anything that sounded like film music or smacked of popular song or musical theater, it was really looked down on. It was not thought to be academic, so it was not worthwhile studying musicologically or theoretically. For that reason, many composers were left outside of the circle. Of course, you have people like Bernstein and Gershwin who were admired, however even they dealt with this issue, this separation of serious music versus popular entertainment. But, things have been changing for the better, I think. When you’re writing for the stage, either things work or they don’t. Yes, there can be good tunes you can hum, but they do not sustain a production. There has to be a dramatic art, building blocks of good musical theater. There has to be an investment in the story and character development. It’s about trying to make something work with the different tools I have, not about defining a specific style for myself. I think there is less hostility now toward composers who move fluidly between styles.
“In this economic climate,” concludes Theofanidis, “it is remarkable to be able to do something on this scale. For David, doing new operas is a priority, for which we are grateful. Even though this is about a recent event in our history, and something that is still vivid in peoples’ memories, we approached it with the attitude that we were telling a timeless story.”