Real-life vet's story inspires a '9/11 opera'

On Tuesday, Pearl Harbor Day, San Francisco Opera announced commissioning “Heart of a Soldier,” an opera commemorating 9/11. Although it’s a coincidence, the dates link two great national disasters.

San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley — who has a nearly four-decade-long record of commissioning new operas — has hired Peabody Conservatory faculty member Christopher Theofanidis to compose a work about Rick Rescorla, a previously unknown hero at Ground Zero.

Slated to premiere in the War Memorial Opera House on Sept. 10, 2011, the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11,  when Rescorla died under heroic circumstances — “Heart of a Soldier” will feature baritone Thomas Hampson, Francesca Zambello as stage director and Patrick Summers as music director.

The opera’s seven performances are made possible, in part, by sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, with additional funding from an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“For nearly a decade,” says Gockley, who then ran the Houston Grand Opera, “I have been hoping to commission an opera from the brilliantly talented Christopher Theofanidis. Once in San Francisco, I felt the opportunity to commission this work in observation of the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11.

“On the surface, the piece is about what it takes to be a true hero, but what will drive the music is the passion, the suspense and the ultimate tragedy.”

The opera is based on the book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart, and the stories of Rescorla, his wife Susan, and an American soldier Dan Hill, who had a major role in their lives. Donna DiNovelli is the librettist.

Rescorla was an immigrant from Cornwall, England, who became a decorated platoon leader during the Vietnam War. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was head of security for Morgan Stanley at One World Trade Center. He led the evacuation all of his company’s 2,700 employees from the South Tower before it collapsed, then went back into the building to search for others, and died there.

Theofanidis describes the work’s tone as lyrical, with “a great deal of humor woven throughout, which is part of the humanity these characters bring to the story.”

The music includes tunes from the 1940s, rock of the 1960s, Cornish folksongs and Islamic calls to prayer (because Hill converted to Islam and went to fight for the U.S. in Afghanistan).

Theofanidis, whose works have been performed by orchestras around the world, says his music “stylistically strives to integrate and fuse elements into the work.”

Peter J. Davison is set designer, Jess Goldstein is responsible for the costumes. Hampson will sing the role of Rescorla, former Adler Fellow Melody Moore will sing Susan and William Burden will sing Dan Hill.

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