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On Covering 9/11 as an Arts Journalist

September 11, 2011

There seems to be a sense of relief among my colleagues on the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford about not having to cover 9/11 commemoration stuff. Most of them are hard news people of one kind or another, and I can relate to their aversion to having to do things like going around asking relatives of the dead for the thousandth time for their reactions ten years on and trying to come up with new angles on a subject that's been so obsessively written and talked about that it's almost become meaningless.

I have to say that as an arts journalist, I don't share their relief. I actually think that were I not on this fellowship right now and going about my regular working life, I would quite enjoy covering 9/11 memorial season. The reason is that arts journalists get to write about the cultural aftermath of the disaster and use the art that's been created as a prism through which to show how people have responded and how those responses have changed in the ensuing decade. This is interesting stuff in my opinion. You get to make connections between disparate ideas and you don't have to knock on doors and hassle people who don't want to be pestered.

Here and here are a couple of great examples of what I'm talking about culled from yesterday's New York Times.

Speaking of covering 9/11, I went last night to the world premiere performance of Heart of a Soldier at San Francisco Opera, a new work by Christopher Theofanidis and Donna Di Novelli, created in response to 9/11. The opera tells the story of Rick Rescorla, a British soldier-turned-World-Trade-Center-security-chief who saved hundreds of lives from the falling buildings before going back in to make a final sweep and never reemerging. The opera is based on a book by James B. Stewart and stars Thomas Hampson.

The work sadly didn't make much of an impact on me.

Theofanidis' music is monotonous to the extreme. A lot of thumping ostinati and uninteresting harmonic progressions. The composer has written Rescorla's part way too low for Hampson, who can barely be heard in some of the more bass-pitched passages. Only occasional highlights in orchestral timbre -- the sound of a Scottish bagpipe (which makes no sense from a thematic perspective as Rescorla was from Cornwall and mentioned his love of Cornish pipes, not the Scottish variety), and jungle-thick marimba outbursts -- enliven the scoring.

Di Novelli's libretto is mostly ridiculous. Heart of a Soldier may go down in history as the only opera ever to have been written with a line about building a waffle house. I'm all for opera covering quotidian life, but this one does it in a truly bland way. The singers use a lot of expletives which don't heighten the emotional moment at all. It's all a bit self-conscious, as in 'aren't we daring -- we just used the word 'fuck' on the war memorial opera stage.'

One thing that the opera does manage to achieve is a sense of the closeness of the relationships between the three main characters. There is a powerful intimacy between Hampson's Rescorla and his wife, Susan, played by Melody Moore. Their long-in-the-tooth love affair is steeped in sweetness and playfulness. And the enduring strength of the friendship between Rescorla and his best chum, Dan Hill (played by the tenor William Burden) comes across in the men's continued respect for one another in spite of the very different directions that their lives take.

The performers act the parts convincingly, making us believe in the connections between their characters and what's at stake when they suffer eventual loss. But there's nothing stand-out about their vocal performances, mostly because the music doesn't live up to their abilities as actors.

Many operas about cataclysmic events purposefully avoid action movie-style disaster tactics. John Adams' Doctor Atomic, which also received its world premiere a few years ago at SF Opera, underplayed the mushroom cloud of the first nuclear bomb being tested in the desert and focused instead on the lead-up to the explosion and the aftermath. Heart of a Soldier adopts the same tactic, and as in Doctor Atomic, fails to create the necessary feeling of horror.

I'm not suggesting that director Francesca Zambello should have had the cast running around screaming as the two Twin Tower structures positioned at the back of the stage throughout the opera crumbled before our eyes. But the long and sprawling story, which goes from Rescorla's time in the 1960s and 70s fighting in Africa and then Vietnam to the events of September 11, 2001, deserves a more momentous ending than watching a few people fall over and some pieces of paper flutter to the ground. As it is, the whole opera peters out to an unsatisfying nothing.

Perhaps that's the point: 9/11 has been covered every possible way in the news and in the arts. Maybe we're all exhausted with thinking about it. At this point, there's very little left to say.

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