On September 10, 2011, one day before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, composer Christopher Theofanidis’ first opera, Heart of a Soldier, has its world premiere at San Francisco Opera. A modern day hero’s journey / love story, the opera tells the tale of Rick Rescorla, a multi-decorated Vietnam war hero who, years later, rescued over 2700 people from the World Trade Center before perishing in the Twin Towers collapse.
In the opera, soprano Melody Moore plays the love of Rick’s life, Susan Rescorla. The two met late in life, and had less than three years together before the events of 9/11 unfolded.
A few months before the premiere, Moore and I met in the San Francisco Opera pressroom for a probing 45-minute chat about the opera, career, and life in the Big City.
Jason Victor Serinus: Undertaking this leading role is quite a journey for you, on every level.
Melody Moore: It really is. About a year or year and a half ago, when they first told me about this project and had me consider the fact that the commission might come through, I read the portions of the book that I was told would refer to the character of Susan Rescorla, rather than the sections that discuss his military career. I have to say that I fell in love with her quite a bit at the start. But when she showed up at our first workshop, all of 5’1â€ in heels, and burst into my life with this uncontainable joy and vivaciousness that she has, it really changed the project for me. I knew it was really important, and that it would be groundbreaking, but meeting Susan is what really took it to the next level for me.
JVS: How did you know it would be groundbreaking?
MM: You cannot have an opera based on an American tragedy that is occurring at a 10-year interval without it being something that the media will pay attention to and make into something big. It’s going to garner attention. But meeting her during the workshop upped the emotional quotient for me, because I was looking at the person I was going to play. That’s what really set me on this journey.
JVS: What is it like to work with a living composer? Do you give Christopher feedback about the writing?
MM: Well, there were a couple of times when we could talk to each other. The workshop this past December was jam-packed into one week. The purpose was to listen through so that Christopher Theofanidis would know what he’s dealing with, what voices sound like in this music.. it was all very preliminary.
Nothing didn’t work. It all fell right into place, and I felt very comfortable with the whole thing. It’s dramatic. It’s quite a range. There’s anything from a low C sung in duet to high Cs. But I was fine with it. I’m very excited to work with him, and there was never a catch. We just enjoyed it right from the beginning. He said he couldn’t imagine anyone else singing it, and we get along great [laughing]. And I’m happy with what he’s written.
JVS: You have a very exciting, shimmering sound on top. Has Christopher done anything to capitalize on it?
MM: He hasn’t capitalized on it after the fact. Instead, I made him comfortable with my voice. The way I sang it for him made him comfortable with what he wrote. In other words, he wrote it hoping someone would be able to do it. When I was able to do it, he said, â€œBasta cosÃ, we’re done! I’m not writing anything else.â€ He changed a few words, but all of my stuff stayed the same.
JVS: I don’t think this happens very often. Do you think of yourself as malleable and fitting into a lot of people’s molds?
MM: I do. It can be a blessing, and it can be a curse, because you can get pigeonholed into what you sound good in. People can say, â€œOh, she’s a Marguerite, she’s going to sing French repertoire.â€ Maybe not. I can sing Manon Lescaut very well, but that doesn’t mean I’m going into Puccini spinto rep. Not necessarily. Donna Anna and Elvira fit very well. It’s crazy.
I work up to flexibility each time I sing: not just octaves, but a mix of legato singing and really fast coloratura. I try to keep everything equally balanced vocally, and it does me a good service. But sometimes people make a box, and try to declare me a Mozart Singer, a Strauss singer, or a Puccini singer. I can do all those things. I enjoy doing my best at every job, and I hope I do. But I am kinda malleable.
JVS: At the press conference, the point was stressed that this is not a 9/11 story per se. It’s a love story that takes place around 9/11. But everyone keeps calling it â€œThe 9/11 Opera.â€
MM: Right. I feel that it is not a 9/11 opera. It happened that his life and journey culminated and ended on that day. Susan has absolutely kept his life open for everyone to see, and to understand just what a man he was. I get that. But I think people are calling it the 9/11 opera is that it’s exciting that it’s opening on the day before the 10th anniversary of a major tragedy.
I tell people, â€œRick Rescorla was a decorated military hero. He fought in Vietnam, was in Rhodesia for awhile, met his best friend there, had a full life before he ever met Susan, met the love of his life in the twilight of his life, found his soul mate after he’d already been marriedâ€¦ But as soon as I say that he was a survivor who did the last of the sweeps to get the Morgan Stanley employees out of the South Tower and lost his life, that’s what people hang on to. It is tragic. We all went through it. We all know where we were when it happened. It marked everything, changed airport security, international relations, and how we look at people. It’s the big topic. So I think people keep saying the 9/11 opera is because you can’t avoid the fact that it culminates on 9/11. But the entirety of the story and the opera is not about that. It’s not about that.
Only the last 45 pages are me. You don’t even get to know me until then. And you don’t get to know the World Trade Center until the last 15 minutes of the opera. It’s not even brought up. It’s just where he died.
All of it is Rick. I’m brought at a timely interval appropriate to when he met me. I’m not in the first act at all. It’s all him and his friend Dan.
To me, it’s a double love story. One is between Rick and his wife Susan. But there is an immense love between these two best friends, Dan Hill and Rick Rescorla. It is bigger than a lot of people will experience in their lifetimes. And it’s a great story. The way they were there for each other in their lives, supported each other, and kept in touch is pivotal, pinnacle â€“ all those words that are indicative of a true, deep connection.
JVS: Well, the same thing is true of Turandot.
MM: You know, I thought about that when I was in the chorus at Cincinnati Opera. She doesn’t come on for a long time, but when she does, you’d better pay some attention.
JVS: Do you or the boys have arias?
MM: I don’t. I wouldn’t call this an aria-rich opera. It’s a lot of discussion / parlando / dialogue kind of singing. There are sections that break into rhapsodic music, and there are stunning duet portions. There are solo portions, but they never go into an aria.
Rich has episodes where he pops out, and there are themes that run through the opera. He will continue to sing these themes, and sometimes other people take these themes. So it is followable, melodic, and interesting to the ear; there’s nothing that will prevent the ear from understanding what’s going on. You’re going to catch on to these themes. But as far as a proper aria, no.
JVS: Do you have some luscious scenes?
MM: Yes. Almost unbearable scenes, really. It’s a deep love that I’m fortunate enough to understand myself. But the loss of that kind of love, the devastationâ€¦ I can’t even go there. And Susan has, and here she is.
JVS: I can’t imagine what I’d do if my husband David were to die before me.
MM: I can’t imagine what would happen if my wife Stacey Cobalt would either. We are smart girls, and we’ve set up what we need to do if something were to happen to one or both of us. You have to think about these things. Who knows how long we actually have? We’re both bikers in this city, and in this city, you’re going to fall. Even if you’re perfectly safe in your home, anything could happen.
Nonetheless, right now there’s not a lot of room in my head for that kind of devastation. I have experienced major devastation. My father committed suicide when I was 24. So I’ve had enough time to not know death that it really sank in. If you go long enough without seeing death, it can really shake you, because you don’t bounce back as easily.
Even having gone through something like that, I still can’t imagine, because this is a different kind of love. The love that Susan had for Rick in the three short years they were together didn’t allow for enough time for them to be together. It’s absolutely tragic.
So, the opera has rich stuff, and there’s stuff that’s so painful. Painful dialogue and situations that I’m sure will be difficult for Susan to sit out there and watch too. It’s one thing to sit in on a workshop; it’s another to see this thing materialize.
JVS: What is her book about?
MM: Her life and meeting Rick, and what she’s done. She’s spoken in front on the troops. She visits all the time people who worked with Rick in the military. She’s still friends with their mutual friends. There’s evidently a statue of him, erected because Rick was a war hero, that she visits in Cornwall. She’s taken to riding on Harleys with troops up and down to make a pilgrimage to this statue. She’s a very busy woman.
JVS: How old are you?
MM: My big 40 is coming.
JVS: Have you done other premieres?
MM: No. I would love to sing some Jake Heggie stuff. There was almost a situation when a song cycle was being potentially written for me. But the timing of when he needed to present it doesn’t work with my schedule, so we have to work that out. But I’m really chomping at the bit.
Stephen Schwartz’s piece, SÃ©ance on a Wet Afternoon, that I did at New York City Opera, was fully staged and premiered in Santa Barbara, but it made it big in New York.
JVS: How old were you when you were in San Francisco Opera’s Merola summer program?
MM: I was 32. I started rather late. My partner often says, â€˜If you were on that trajectory at 20 years old’ which I never really was. I was always a reluctant singer. I didn’t think that it was actually a viable career. I was raised in Memphis, and in Memphis, even in Nashville, you don’t sing for a living. No one sings for a living.
JVS: This is a Memphis accent?
MM: No, I’ve lost it. You won’t hear it unless I get drunk or I talk to my mother. But sometimes it comes through. I lost it in Texas, of all places, because it’s such a melting pot of different cultures.
Going back to my childhood, I had no idea about any of this. I wasn’t on a fast moving trajectory. I went to public high school my last two years of schooling. The teacher heard some promise and had me audition for Allstate choir in Texas. I made fifth chair and second chair. I couldn’t read music, so the voice teacher who taught me the music to compete with heard something and me audition for Louisiana State University. I got in full scholarship. But I still took other things on the side. I was a psychology minor going into music therapy, so I transferred to Loyola for that reason.
I also auditioned as a singer because I wanted two careers. I didn’t know if the singing thing would work out; I didn’t see it as a solid thing, because that wasn’t how I was raised. You make a doctor or you make a nurse, and that’s the pinnacle.
JVS: And you’re not Jewish!
MM: No, I’m not, but I’ve been asked that before.
Once I got to Cincinnati Conservatory, I knew singing was going to go. It’s not there were many opportunities for me there; there were so many sopranos, and it was so competitive, that I never even got a lead part. Nonetheless, at the end of my Cincinnati tenure, I got Merola and was taken for San Francisco Opera’s Adler program.
JVS: What did you do between college and Cincinnati?
MM: I took a four-year break when my dad died. That stopped my progress. I didn’t sing anything.
My partner often says that if I had continued pushing to keep singing even in the midst of all that tragedy, I might have either burned out or gone too fast, too bright, and fallen apart later from the emotional strain. It’s better, I think, to take your time. There’s a risk to taking your time.
It took a full four years for me to recover. When I came back to music, I returned full force. But it informed everything. My voice was different, the delivery method was different. Now I thought I had something to say. Everything felt a little bit more serious.
JVS: In my experience with your voice, I always found that it worked very well for tragedy. When I spoke with Flicka, I learned that she was born into tragedy. Was there stuff before your father’s suicide? Ah, your eyes say yes. A long-time alcoholic?
MM: Yeah. That’s what caused him to finally follow through with the suicide. He was so alcoholic, and so abusive, especially to my mom, but also to the three of us.
JVS: At least you had some support. Were the others around your age?
MM: No. I was the only child for seven years, and they came one after the other. So I was more of a caretaker, I think. That can also be tragic.
JVS: So you had seven years of abuse as an only child.
This brings us back to the opera, and the theme of transcendence. It sounds as though Susan turned her tragedy into an opportunity for service.
MM: Yes, she’s remarkable. I have often said it’s a disservice to tell people not to cry, or that showing emotion is a sign or weakness. To me, the people who dare to allow those things to seep out and give them voice are the strong people. Susan is one of those people.
She sits there when you’re singing that she’s going to fall apart. But she doesn’t fall apart because she just expresses it and lets it go and goes on to enjoy another day and sing the praises of her husband and all he was to all the people who still remember him as the guy who got on the bullhorn and sang Welsh fighting songs down the staircase. He used singing to train them to exit the building.
He’s an extraordinary man. Being raised Pentecostal, I do struggle with concepts of spirituality, God, and the possibility of life beyond. But I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I feel Rick in the room. It feels like we’re talking to each other. It’s crazy. I don’t know how to deal with those feelings other than to honor them and say, â€œI hope you like it.â€
When it’s present, it’s present. We all sang for donors before the press conference. Everyone was in tears.
I believe the piece works. There are always people who will want different things. Not everybody’s going to get it. Some opera fans may not like some of the period instruments Christopher uses, including Hammond organ and electronic guitar. There’s also a lot of marches, and percussion from the stage and the pit. But besides some interesting things that are going on outside of the box, it’s not atonal or hard on the ear.
Thematically is where Christopher shines. There’s this thread that runs through the entire piece. What you heard at the beginning makes sense toward the end. There are definitely two or three themes that run throughout the whole thing. Even when the music isn’t the same, the words are said. And sometimes the theme is stretched out over someone’s music in diminution. It’s made longer so you may not catch it orally the first time, but it’s in there.
JVS: I assume you’ve since learned how to read music?
MM: I received some instruction in high school, and some piano when I was younger. But it wasn’t enough to enable me to sing in solfege. Now I’m known for picking up music fast if I have to. I’m always looking for new things to do.
JVS: What does Stacey do?
MM: She’s a lighting technician for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Sometimes when she’s not too busy working on a show, she can take off and come with me.
I’ll be doing the US Premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna with New York City Opera at BAM in February, and I think she’ll be able to visit for a few days.
JVS: Oh God, New York in January. The snow, the sludge, the heat inside and the cold outsideâ€¦
MM: I know. I think of all the auditions I did there in the winter when I wondered how I was ever going to get around. You can’t wear a dress without getting mud all over it. But there’s never a lack of something to do or see. Restaurants out the waz.