September 14, 2011

San Francisco Opera's "Heart of a Soldier"

Heart of a Soldier, The Twin Towers
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.

Too Soon?

It is difficult to predict when it becomes appropriate to tackle artistically a tragedy like the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. At what point do the images and personal stories become history instead of a way to capitalize emotionally and financially on such a distressing moment? Equally important is the decision of how to depict these episodes — to decide how a work of art takes real-life incidents and transforms them into universal truths. Does the artist focus on the large-scale historical event, or does he choose to focus on the personal?
For its world premiere of Heart of a Soldier at San Francisco Opera, the creators chose to concentrate on the personal story of Morgan Stanley’s security head Rick Rescorla, whose actions led over 2,700 World Trade Center South Tower workers to safety, only to lose his own life when he reentered the building to search for stragglers. The opera focuses on his journey from childhood in Cornwall, England, to his role in the tragic events on 9/11. An exploration of a life that culminated in those heroic actions is a story worth examining.
Unfortunately, it was poorly told.
The libretto by Donna Di Novelli (based on the James B. Stewart book Heart of a Soldier) is all exposition — a linear docudrama that plays fast and loose with Rescorla’s biography — jumping episodically from Rescorla’s childhood idolization of Yanks in World War II, through his mercenary soldiering in Rhodesia, subsequent enlistment in the U.S. Army and service in Vietnam, to his first marriage — then inexplicably jumps to Rescorla at his job at the World Trade Center and second marriage, leaving a twenty-year gap in its wake. In the didactic and cliché-ridden script, all moments are given equivalent time and importance, and the audience is left wondering if events or the gaps in-between weighed equally in Rescorla’s character development and whether they occurred over three days, three minutes, or three years.