“Here he comes again with another CNN opera,” San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley joked about himself at a press event about the fast-approaching world premiere of “Heart of a Soldier.”
The opera about 9/11, opening in the War Memorial Opera House on Sept. 10, follows a long line of contemporary works produced by Gockley among 33 premieres during his 33 years at the head of the Houston Grand Opera, John Adams’ 1987 “Nixon in China” among them.
In San Francisco, Gockley’s predecessors Lotfi Mansouri and Pamela Rosenberg did likewise, offering such contemporary topics as Adams’ 2005 “Doctor Atomic.”
“Heart of a Soldier” director Francesca Zambello, who initiated this project, says art has long championed modern themes: “Mozart, Verdi, Beethoven, Shostakovich also spoke of their days, and so should works of today.”
Thomas Hampson creates the role of Rick Rescorla in Christopher Theofanidis’ opera, and Merola alumna Melody Moore is sure to be launched on an international career in the role of Susan Rescorla.
The opera’s libretto, by Donna Di Novelli, is based on the 2002 book of the same title by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart.
The “middle-aged romance” of the Rescorlas, who found each other in their 50s, is one of the opera’s moving components. Zambello sees it as part of a trend to deal with “second-chance” love stories.
Rescorla was a Vietnam veteran who died heading the successful evacuation of all but six of 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees when the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11. The casualties, including Rescorla, were members of his security team.
Heroism is at the heart of the opera, but so is Theofanidis’ music: it is tonal, accessible and contemporary, with some twisting harmonies and lush sounds reminiscent of Richard Strauss.
The composer also incorporates music evoking an era stretching from the end of World War II to 9/11 — not as pastiches, but as an integral part of the score.
Theofanidis, 43, is winner of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, six ASCAP Gould Prizes and a Fulbright Fellowship, in addition to being a veteran of the California Symphony’s pioneering Young American Composer-in-Residence Program.
The premiere’s conductor, Houston Grand Opera Artistic Director Patrick Summers, said his company already has commissioned another opera from Theofanidis, whom he called “a born musical dramatist.”
How can such expensive and risky new commissions be realized, especially — considering the “Heart” timeline — during the 2008 global fiscal meltdown (awaiting an opera of its own)?
Gockley credits “our own King Ludwig,” San Francisco Opera board chairman John A. Gunn, who donated $40 million to the company three years ago, and recently has contributed more.
IF YOU GO
Presented by the San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 10, Sept. 27 and Sept. 30; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13 and Sept. 21; 2 p.m. Sept. 18 and Sept. 24
Tickets: $26 to $330
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com