Music

The Vietnam War at the Kentucky Opera

Gregory Gerbrandt in the Kentucky Opera’s production of Glory Denied. (Bill Brymer)
Vets in the audience, bourbon in the foyer — our critic finds he’s not in New York anymore.

Critics who long for a revival of opera in America tend to agree that, as Terry Teachout put it last year, “if opera in America is to survive, . . . it won’t come from aging institutions” such as the New York’s Metropolitan Opera “but from newer, scrappier troupes that have never had any choice but to innovate — or die.” I do not fully agree with this conventional wisdom — even a little time watching opera in mainland Europe makes you appreciate what the Met’s conservatism conserves — but there’s undeniably something to it. The size of, and lowered expectations facing, smaller opera companies allow them to try new productions and new approaches to old works at much lower cost and risk than would be the case for the big coastal opera companies. For that reason, I have been especially interested since moving from Manhattan to Louisville this year (for unrelated work) to see the Kentucky Opera.

The first show that I attended, over Veterans Day weekend, did not in that respect disappoint. It was a new production of a 2007 opera called Glory Denied, music and libretto by Tom Cipullo, about America’s longest-held prisoner of war, Colonel Jim Thompson, who spent almost nine years in brutal captivity during the Vietnam War. In a taut, dramatically compelling, two-act opera, Cipullo illustrates the soldier’s ordeal and that of his wife, who on the very day of his capture had just given birth to their fourth child.

The first act is the strongest part of the opera. “It Didn’t Matter,” the opening aria, sets the stakes: Thompson has had enough intelligence training to know the techniques his captors are using on him, to have some sense of the physical and psychological torment awaiting him, and yet, in the end, that won’t stop the horrors to come. Here, the adroitness of the dramaturgy comes into play. Glory Denied has only four singers: Younger Thompson (tenor Alexander Scheuermann), Younger Alyce (soprano Cree Carrico), Older Thompson (baritone Gregory Gerbrandt), and Older Alyce (soprano Murella Parton). Scheuermann plays Younger Thompson during the first half, but when he is being tortured, the other three characters, rather than playing themselves, play his Vietnamese captors.

Quickly, scenes become interspersed with events on the home front, where Younger Alyce learns of her husband’s imprisonment and starts to process the news, with the other three characters playing roles such as that of the officers who notify her. Then, seamlessly, we are back to Vietnam, then home again, etc. It is to the great credit of Cipullo, set designer Grace Laubacher, and production stage manager Eric Nathan Brady that this sequence, which could have been highly confusing, never is. These quick transitions, in turn, start to break down time and space for the audience — a realization driven home by a Vietnamese interrogator’s repeated question, “How do you think your wife feels?” As we see, over the course of Thompson’s almost nine-year ordeal, Alyce goes from initial innocent longing for her husband to despair, to denial, and then to taking comfort in the arms of another. But because the play so seamlessly breaks down the barriers between scenes, we cannot initially be sure what are Thompson’s memories of the past versus his fears for the future versus an account of reality. And since we have already been alerted to the use of psychological techniques, it’s only a small leap to see that this is both a technique and an effect of the torture.

Moreover, the modern music, with its staccato percussion, jarring shifts, and atonal chords (conducted by Steven Crawford), is perfectly suited to underlie this feeling of unease and disorientation. The result is exactly what opera is supposed to be: a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total artwork,” where music, poetry or prose, acting, scenery, and dramaturgy all combine to reinforce one another and immerse the viewer. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that this was the most dramatically effective single act of opera I have seen in a year and a half.

The second act started promisingly but ultimately did not live up to the standard set by the first. Older Alyce’s opening plea for understanding after being reunited with her husband, “After You Hear Me Out,” is one of the opera’s few true solo arias and perhaps its most beautiful moment. Parton carried it off beautifully, achingly. But “Teflon Cookware,” which catalogues the changes in America that have occurred since Thompson was away, is more or less a pastiche of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Light the Fire.”

More generally, in the second act, the musical style, which had played so well throughout the first act, begins instead to create problems. In the program notes, Cipullo astutely observes that

perhaps the biggest challenge in writing the work was how to make Alyce a real, comprehensible, three-dimensional person. Some of her actions during Jim’s ordeal were nothing short of shocking. Still, when Alyce sings, her music must be so beautiful and persuasive that people will say, “Yes, if I had been alone with four children — the last born the day my husband was captured — perhaps I could have done that too.”

The problem is that, with the exception of the aforementioned “After You Hear Me Out,” the opera doesn’t pull this off. I suspect that this is a problem more of style than of talent, as Cipullo is obviously a gifted composer. The same disjointed, atonal style that served so well to illustrate torture, disorientation, despair at the absence of a loved one — in a word, dehumanization — in the first act does little to humanize characters in the second.

This is part of a broader crisis facing modern (in the non-technical sense), atonal music: A group of styles originally designed to smash conventions and, so it was promised, free up artists have become rigidly conventional. Just as, in (even very inspired) works from the baroque period, the use of grand, march-like melodies for arias that express sadness, joy, jealousy, triumph, betrayal, and revenge ultimately limited the range of emotional expression, so too do we seem to have reached the same place today. The results, when the material does not fit the underlying musical style, are wooden.

Then there was the ending: Reconciliation having failed, Jim sits alone, drinking. It’s a whimper not a bang, in pacing as much as in result. Now, as Thompson’s story is a true one, you might think this was unavoidable — except for something at once fascinating and frustrating. The audience had been told before the start of the show that the son of the real Colonel Jim Thompson and Alyce were in the theater with us. It was a new experience to watch an opera knowing that there was such a close, live connection to the actual subject. At once, this was something of a thrill, making an old art form suddenly very alive. At the same time, it felt uncomfortably voyeuristic to realize you were watching someone’s marriage fall apart with their offspring present. At the opera’s close, though, it suggested too that there was more to this story — acceptance, perhaps, or a sense of family pride, or something else — that we were not being told.

Thompson’s presence also spoke to a larger context, however, that was definitely new for me. He may well come to a production of Glory Denied at the Met if it is ever performed there, but, absent major societal changes, the percentage of veterans (or of their close family) in the audience and in the production company would not be anywhere close to what it was in Louisville. Fort Knox is not far from Louisville, and people here are far more likely to have served or to have relatives who did. This felt personal connection was emphasized by performers and producers behind the scenes at a fundraiser I attended and in displays in the entrance to the historic Brown Theater. (As it happens, though I am not from here, I have a grandfather who both served in the Vietnam War and was a prisoner of war, though in the latter case not in Vietnam but in the China-Burma-India theater of World War II.)

Some of the differences I’ve started to observe between New York and Louisville are lighter: For instance, I wish the Met or the Kennedy Center would embrace bourbon-themed fundraisers, as well as reasonably priced Woodford Reserve at intermission. On the other hand, Glory Denied, like all Kentucky Opera shows, ran for only two closely spaced nights, so I cannot tell you to go if you’re in the area over the next month, as I would do with a strong production at the Met. As these examples suggest, running a bolder but “scrappier troupe” presents broader challenges as well as opportunities. I hope to explore them over the coming year.

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