Within the next month we are likely to experience a variety of events, both in performance and through the media, recognizing the tenth anniversary of the attacks that destroyed the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. Among those events one of the most interesting is likely to be the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in commemoration of this tragic occasion. The libretto, by Donna Di Novelli, is based on the critically acclaimed non-fiction book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart and the life stories of Susan Rescorla, Rick Rescorla and Daniel J. Hill. For those who do not know the story behind this book, Rick Rescorla was the Vietnam veteran working as Head of Security for Morgan Stanley at Two World Trade Center (the South Tower) when the towers were hit. He drew upon his combat experience to successfully evacuate all 2700 Morgan Stanley employees. He then went back to search for stragglers and died when the tower collapsed.
The score for Di Novelli’s libretto has been composed by Christopher Theofanidis. Theofanidis has not received very much attention here in San Francisco, but he is not entirely unknown. Most recently, Sarah Chang performed his fantasy for violin with piano accompaniment when she gave her Chamber Music San Francisco recital here on March 7, 2010. An excerpt from an earlier performance Chang gave in Hanoi was recorded on video by Angellittlefire and uploaded to YouTube.
More relevant to what we may expect from the music for Heart of a Soldier, however, will probably be Theofanidis’ extensive repertoire of compositions for full orchestra and his past experience with opera. Fortunately, both of these genres may be experienced through the World Wide Web. Indeed, YouTube offers an excellent video document (which may be viewed through the link in the left-hand column) of “Rainbow Body,” performed at the UN Day Concert on October 22, 2010 in the General Assembly Hall by the KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Hahm Shin-Ik. Whether or not this reflects what we are likely to hear from the San Francisco Opera, it is an excellent account of an imaginative and relatively compelling score.
Theofanidis cites two sources of inspiration for “Rainbow Body.” The title comes from a concept of Tibetan Buddhism. As Theofanidis explains in the notes on his Web site for this composition, this is the idea “that when an enlightened being dies physically, his or her body is absorbed directly back into the universe as energy, as light.” The other source is the responsorium of Hildegard von Bingen, “Ave Maria, O auctrix vite” (Hail Mary, O source of life), which is one of the selections on Sequentia’s Canticles of Ecstasy album. The theme of this chant is a major thematic source for “Rainbow Body.”
Those of us in the Bay Area are likely to find some “family resemblances” that relate the music in this score to some of the compositions of John Adams. This is understandable. Like Adams, Theofanidis has a strong command of every section of the orchestra. He also can elicit those grand sounds that have sometimes been called “maximal minimalism” in Adams’ compositions. Nevertheless, there is no confusing “Rainbow Body” with any of Adams’ works. While he may draw upon grammatical and rhetorical techniques that we encounter in Adams, the “voice” of “Rainbow Body” would not be confused with any Adams’ composition. It is a bold statement of a personal worldview by a composer with a firm command of instrumentation for a large ensemble.
On the operatic side Theofanidis’ most important accomplishment has probably been The Refuge, composed in 2007 on a commission from the Houston Grand Opera with a libretto by Leah Lax. This is basically an account of refugee experiences from several different parts of the world, including Africa, Asia, the Soviet Union, and Central America. Here, again, there is the temptation to compare Theofanidis with Adams, particularly when it involves Adams’ approach to an almost conversational account of a narrative. (Think, by way of example, of Adams’ interpretation of the almost clinical account in Walt Whitman’s poem “The Wound Dresser.”) Theofanidis shows great sensitivity to the voice of the narrator and to how music can supplement the narrative act without overwhelming it. One can listen to this sensitivity in the all-too-brief excerpts from this opera available on the repertoire page of his Web site. To the extent that Heart of a Soldier will also be based on a relationship between narrator and narrative, these samples may provide a good sense of what to expect when Theofanidis’ new score is performed in the War Memorial Opera House.
Heart of a Soldier will premiere on Saturday, September 10, 2011—the eve of the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks—as part of the Company’s 2011–12 repertory season. Six additional performances will be presented through September 30 at the War Memorial Opera House. The leading vocalists will be baritone Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla, soprano Melody Moore as his wife, Susan, and tenor William Burden as his friend, Hill. Francesca Zambello will direct this world premiere production and San Francisco Opera Principal Guest Conductor Patrick Summers will lead the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The production team includes set designer Peter J. Davison, costume designer Jess Goldstein, lighting designer Mark McCullough, projection designer S. Katy Tucker, movement director Rick Sordelet, choreographer Lawrence Pech, and Company chorus director Ian Robertson.
Tickets are priced from $21 to $389 and may be purchased through the event page for Heart of a Soldier on the San Francisco Opera Web site. They may also be purchased at the San Francisco Opera Box Office in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, located at 301 Van Ness Avenue on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Finally, one can order tickets by calling 415-864-3330. The event page also provides the specific dates for the seven performances. Standing Room tickets go on sale at the Box Office at 10 AM on the day of each performance and are sold at $10 each, cash only.