Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center ten years ago, New Yorker writer James B. Stewart was asked help out with reporting on the tragedy. He ran across the story of Rick Rescorla, who had been in charge of security at Morgan Stanley, and who had shepherded 2700 employees of the firm down 50 flights of stairs and out of the South Tower -- after the North Tower had been hit. But then Rescorla decided to go back inside to be sure all the workers had made it out. And that's when the second plane hit the South Tower. Rescorla was never heard from again; his remains were never found. He left behind a wife, Susan, whom he had married just two years before, when both were in their late 50s.
As Stewart discovered, Rescorla was a fascinating man, a soldier of fortune, born in Cornwall, England during the Second World War, when American soldiers were all around. He fought in Rhodesia, as a hard-drinking member of the British Military Police; he killed a lion that was harming villagers, and wore its tooth the rest of his life. Eventually he came to America, joined the Army, became an officer, fought in Vietnam and earned a reputation as a true hero. He was fearless and capable; he risked his own life countless times, and he saved the lives of hundreds of his fellow soldiers, to say nothing of his fellow workers in the World Trade Center.
Late in life Rescorla met Susan; both of them were divorced. Their friendship quickly grew into love, and eventually they were married.
The story and its terrible ending were as dramatic as any opera, and perhaps more real. Stewart, the writer, wrote about it again, in a book, Heart of a Soldier, which Time magazine called "the best nonfiction book of 2002."
Now, the San Francisco Opera is presenting Heart of a Soldier as an opera, based on Stewart's book. The idea for the opera was suggested by Francesca Zambello, who is directing the production with gusto. I talked with her at a rehearsal I attended at the San Francisco Opera House, while preparing a television piece for the PBS NewsHour.
"It had all the themes of an opera," Zambello told me. "I mean it was about big stories, big emotions, and about things that a lot of operas used to be about. When we look back at the works of Beethoven and Mozart and Verdi and Wagner, so many themes in their works were about heroism and bravery and valor and courage... And it also had a very important ingredient that no opera theater can live without, which is a love story."
The opera is short -- two acts in less than two hours. And a principal challenge was to take in the whole scope of the story, which starts in Cornwall during World War Two. The opera relates Rescorla's adventures in Rhodesia and Vietnam, his abiding friendship with a fellow soldier, and the romance of his relationship with Susan, along with its tragic ending. That's a tough scenario to write, and perhaps even tougher to compose. American Christopher Theofanidis wrote the music, and he agrees the large time span of the action was a tough hurdle: "The difficult thing is to try...to synthesize those musical idioms into my own kind of language, which is basically a romantic dramatic tonal language. And so what you hear throughout is their inferences of style from those different periods."
How does he deal musically with the ending, the death of Rick Rescorla and his wife's reaction: "You know, the interesting thing about trying to re-create something which is a tragedy of that proportion is that you can't really do it with equal intensity as the thing itself. You almost have to go in the other direction and create a kind of reverence...that allows people consideration and space of their own."
Heart of a Soldier is more than just a commemoration of 9/11, ten years later. Its creators think that unlike many contemporary operas, it will live beyond its world premiere. The story is universal; the characters are real people; the situations are familiar. Whether it works as opera is the question audiences will have to answer.
Seven performances of Heart of a Soldier, starring Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla, and Melody Moore as Susan Rescorla, start Saturday, September 10 and run through September 30, 2011 at the San Francisco Opera. For tickets and information visit sfopera.com.