- Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert, Vân-Ánh Võ: “Mỹ Lai” (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
- David T. Little, Royce Vavrek, The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, NOVUS NY, Mellissa Hughes: “Am I Born” (Bright Shiny Things)
Back in September 2016—in an only slightly saner world—novelist Lionel Shriver gave a keynote at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The festival’s organizers had asked her to speak on the topic of “community and belonging.” She came out onstage wearing a sombrero, and delivered a speech that included the statement “I am hopeful that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a passing fad.” The fallout was instantaneous and intense.
Three years later, another novelist, Queen of the Night author Alexander Chee, responded indirectly to Shriver’s thesis in a piece for New York Magazine on writing stories about people from other cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. “These discussions,” he says, referring to the debates that had become default in the wake of Shriver’s keynote, “distract me increasingly from the conversations I’m interested in.” Chee, who is Asian-American, was “more interested in how there’s another literature possible when people who belong to the status quo challenge it from within.”
I think about Chee’s article a lot in the context of opera in a time where the question of race and representation can be valid and valuable, but just as often distract from more interesting discussions. It came to mind again this past week when listening to “Mỹ Lai,” an opera about the massacre of over 500 Vietnamese civilians conducted by U.S. troops in 1968. Written by composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Harriet Scott Chessman for the Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert, and Vân-Ánh Võ, and premiered in the same year that Shriver saw wearing a sombrero as protest, “Mỹ Lai” is an example of a work written by two white Americans who are able to challenge the status quo from within. There is no “Miss Saigon” orientalism lurking underneath the guise of a love story; no Wagnerian glory-cum-terror (even as an ironic commentary on the military industrial complex) of “Apocalypse Now.”
In fact, there isn’t even a second character. “Mỹ Lai” is a monodrama told from the vantage point of Hugh C. Thompson Jr., a 24-year-old Army helicopter pilot who attempted to intervene in the massacre, landing three times in the conflict zone to protect Vietnamese civilians and saving about a dozen people while reporting the events from his helicopter radio. These landings serve as the main beats of the opera. Despite how this may read, “Mỹ Lai” is no white-hero-redemption story. “Jonathan was less interested in Thompson’s heroic actions than in the ways that morning might have haunted him as he was dying of cancer in 2005,” librettist Chessman wrote in 2017, adding that “what moved Jonathan was the echo chambers of memory and trauma, elements I have also explored in my fiction.”
It helps to be writing such an opera for the Kronos Quartet, which has perhaps one of the longest track records of performing international music with a sense of agency rather than appropriation. Many of their concerts and albums take on the form of fantastical house parties, with the quartet serving as backup for guest musicians who have devoted their entire careers to modes and instruments like Arabic maqām, the Chinese pipa, and Bollywood vocals. “Mỹ Lai” begins with the Hanoi-born Võ on the đàn bầu, a traditional monocord. Switching between this instrument—one that Võ says in her (delightful) NPR Tiny Desk Concert was “invented by bad girls on the street”—the t’rưng (a bamboo xylophone) and the đàn tranh (Vietnam’s answer to the zither), Võ serves as a sort of Greek chorus to Thompson’s character, a spiritual guide connecting a dying Thompson to the ghosts of his past. She switches off with Kronos, whose score speaks to Thompson’s Atlanta roots, with the instruments at time trading places so that Võ’s instruments evoke the deep American South and the Kronos strings pick up her pentatonic scales.
This isn’t to take away from Rinde Eckert, who spares Thompson the heroics of a heldentenor and instead portrays a man whose wonder at leaving home for the first time is soon overtaken by the horror (“…the horror”) of what his own country is inflicting on civilians, many of whom were women, children, the elderly, and disabled. In 2022—with the images of bombed-out theaters and maternity hospitals circulating in the news—lines like “Weren’t those people just walking to market, their baskets waiting to be filled? Weren’t those people just heading to the fields on this bright morning?” feel like rueful reminders of history’s endless cycle of repetition. Thompson’s act of heroism wasn’t recognized as such in his time. He testified in a trial of 26 military personnel involved in Mỹ Lai, all of whom were acquitted or pardoned, and it wasn’t until 30 years of living as an outcast in dire mental straits that his actions were seen as just.
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“Mỹ Lai” is as much about the massacre as it is about this fallout, the tragedy of people who hold onto their sense of a moral epicenter even as the ground hopelessly tips in the opposite direction. In some ways, Kronos and company also place the last word where it’s due: The booklet for “Mỹ Lai” includes the names of every victim of the attack, as well as two pieces originally written by survivor Trần Văn Đức in 2010—an open letter to massacre leader Lt. William Calley, and his memoir of living through the attack and its aftermath. This isn’t opera as trauma porn, but opera as a checkpoint for ethical and moral reassessment.
One of the composers I kept going back to while listening to “Mỹ Lai” was David T. Little, both thanks to his own critical anti-war monodrama, “Soldier Songs,” and his percussion quartet “The Haunt of Last Nightfall” which, more than “Soldier Songs,” lives in the echo chambers of memory and trauma. I hadn’t listened to Little’s oratorio, “Am I Born,” since it premiered in Brooklyn in 2012 with soprano Mellissa Hughes, and conductor Alan Pierson.
The ghosts of history also permeate “Am I Born,” moving like a palimpsest. The work’s name comes from an 1816 hymn, whose text in turn was written by Charles Wesley in 1763. It was originally written for the Brooklyn Philharmonic when Pierson had taken the lead as the orchestra’s artistic director and had dedicated part of its season to performing around its namesake borough as a means of emphasizing history. The core inspiration for the piece comes down to both ghosts and history as well: Francis Guy’s 1820 painting “Winter Scene in Brooklyn,” which depicts a Bruegel-esque snowscape that, half a century later, would be razed in order to accommodate the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. (Guy died the same year that he completed the painting.)
Royce Vavrek culls all of this history and limns it down into a sparsely elegant libretto: “I believe in a rhythm, a meter to the lives,” he writes at one point. “I believe in a rhythm, an intersection of time like once-visible breath.” The chorus stands in as the Ghosts of 1820 (originally written for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, this recording represents a revised score composed for the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, who appear on this recording with the church’s ensemble NOVUS NY). The soprano soloist stands in as Guy’s painting as it gains consciousness and steps from the Brooklyn of the early 19th century into the Brooklyn of today. Confused and isolated from the rest of the world operating at its 21st-century pace, she is a refugee of time. Hughes’s voice—raw with frost, dark with the otherworldly, and imbued with the lyricism of a more elegant time—is perfect in this role of the outsider. When commanded by the Ghosts of 1820 to return to the site of her old home on Front Street, she responds, “I am afraid to walk that road, afraid to feel like a visitor in my own home.”
It’s an “Ozymandias” sense of melancholy, one that Little plays—as he does in many of his works—to unsettling rather than sentimental effect. To learn we are always surrounded by ghosts of the past is to reevaluate one’s life up to that point of realization. As the chorus sings: “We depend on documents to suggest we ever existed.”
Ten years later, “Am I Born” has collected more ghosts in the folds of its vocal palimpsests and heavy-metal romanticism. The Brooklyn Philharmonic quietly closed its doors the year following the work’s premiere. The optimism of the era in which it was written soon gave way to a dismal despondency that has yet to fully dissipate. After two years of isolation, taking a walk around the block still feels like being a visitor in one’s own home. In this sense, the shadow cast over the recording in light of the allegations of sexual harassment against its conductor, Julian Wachner, feeds into the work’s theme of keeping up with rapidly-changing times, even when the past isn’t over. ¶
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