Kronos Quartet to revisit horrors of Vietnam with “My Lai”
One August evening in 1972, David Harrington was listening to the radio late at night with his wife. Living in Seattle at the time, Harrington had recently landed a job as a section violinist in the Victoria Symphony and was on track to an orchestral career.
Music then came on the radio which, quite literally, changed his life: Black Angels, A string quartet by George Crumb, which was the composer’s pained musical response to the horrors of the Vietnam War.
“It sounded like it belonged to the fevered time that we were living in at that moment,” Harrington recalls. “I knew I had to play that piece, but in order to play it, I had to get a group together.”
With that, the Kronos Quartet was born, and the rest, as they say, is history. But for Kronos, the collective trauma of Vietnam War proved impossible to leave behind.
This Friday at the Harris Theater, the San Francisco-based group, joined by Vietnamese instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Võ and tenor Rinde Eckertwill, will give the fully-staged premiere of My Lai, a chamber opera by Jonathan Berger about the infamous 1968 My Lai Massacre.
The work is told from the perspective of Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who made multiple attempts to stop the killings. The opera hones in on the final days of Thompson’s life, when, battling cancer, he is wracked anew with guilt over his inability to save more lives.
Currently a music professor at Stanford University, Berger was in high school when the story broke and recalls the My Lai Massacre and subsequent cover-up as “a coming-of-age moment” in his political awareness. But it would be years before he was introduced to Thompson’s story, which he first heard from a colleague while working at Yale.
“I was extremely moved,” Berger said. “I had this sense that a statement had to be made about it, both politically and musically.”
That statement initially took the form of a piano concerto commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. But even then, Berger knew he wasn’t yet finished with Thompson’s story.
“It had always been in the back of my mind that I would turn this into a vocal dramatic work, because there’s a hugely dramatic musical curve to the story,” Berger said. “Thompson tried to intercede three times over the course of that day, and each of those three landings had its own significance and drama.”
Those three landings would ultimately lend My Lai its structure: The 90-minute opera is divided into three parts, each centered around one of Thompson’s attempts to stop the carnage.
In assembling a team to bring Thompson’s story to life, Berger didn’t have to look far—Eckert, Võ, librettist Harriet Scott Chessman, and the Kronos Quartet are all based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
All were particularly suited to the project: Chessman had just completed The Beauty of Ordinary Things, a novel about a soldier returning from the Vietnam War; Eckert was a trusted collaborator who’d directed Berger’s last two chamber operas, Theotokia and The War Reporter, at Stanford; and Võ possessed much-needed musical insight into writing for traditional Vietnamese instruments.
Naturally, Kronos would be in-demand interpreters of any contemporary work, but the group was especially drawn to My Lai’s potent historical and musical content.
“It’s part of the circle that Black Angels began,” Harrington said. “There are moments of incredible beauty and melody, and then moments of shocking brutality.”
Berger pointed out that some of the percussive instruments included in the opera are traditionally considered instruments of war, especially the đàn t’rung—a bamboo xylophone—and gongs.
In the case of the gongs, the connection to the war is impossible to ignore: They’re made of real American artillery shells, left over from the Vietnam War and brought to the U.S. by Võ’s father.
“The shells were turned into instruments by musicians in Ho Chi Minh City,” Berger explained. “There’s this poetic aspect of beating your [enemy’s] swords into musical instruments that I found very moving and emotional.”
Another instrument prominently featured in the opera is the one-stringed đàn bầu, which begins the opening lullaby. The music is further supplemented by digitally-processed sounds, most notably the persistent thwap of helicopter blades.
Though My Lai had its world premiere at Stanford last October, the Harris production will be the opera’s first fully-staged public performance, including projections by director and video projection designer Mark DeChiazza.
Contrary to the horrific images many Americans associate with My Lai and the Vietnam War, Berger insisted that the opera’s visuals will largely eschew blood and gore in hopes of probing something deeper.
“Mark is a magician at telling stories with subtlety and grace,” Berger said. “The Vietnam War may have been the first war where the pictures in the newspaper made atrocities the front page, but it was nothing compared to now. Now, whether it’s American soldiers or ISIS or Al Qaeda, we’re so inundated with these graphic images that it would be ultimately stronger to be suggestive.”
Harrington agreed, and expressed hope that audiences will appreciate the work’s relevance beyond Thompson’s time and situation.
“God knows that we see atrocities of war on a daily basis. Just open the newspaper; we see our own country involved in very questionable moves,” he said. “I don’t think I need to politicize the fact that there are parallels, but we need to be cognizant of it.”
Jonathan Berger’s My Lai will be performed 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Harris Theater. There will be a pre-performance lecture at 6 p.m. with Scott Sagan, professor of political science at Stanford University, and a post-concert conversation with the artists. harristheaterchicago.org.
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