When grave tragedy strikes, what happens to artists? Some are driven to create. Others, like Christopher Theofanidis, get frozen in their tracks. That's how the award-winning composer, who was in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, describes what happened to him.
"That event really stopped me from composing for a number of months," Theofanidis recalls. "Most composers, visual artists and writers I know were in a middle of a project, as they always are, and people have very different reactions. My reaction was to stop writing. I abandoned the piece I was working on and just stopped doing what I was doing for some time — to process what that was about and what happened to my general sense of optimism and esprit."
Theofanidis eventually started composing again, and found himself with an opera commission but no suitable subject. His search ended when opera director Francesca Zambello suggested he read Heart of a Soldier, the true story of a Sept. 11 hero and decorated U.S. Army veteran named Rick Rescorla, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart.
"I completely fell in love with it," Theofanidis says. "And over time it just got more and more rich and full of connections and meaning."
With librettist Donna DiNovelli, Theofanidis funneled all of those rich connections into a new opera, also called Heart of a Soldier. It receives its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera on Saturday, the eve of the Sept. 11 anniversary.
The first half of the opera tracks the life of Rescorla (played by baritone Thomas Hampson), who befriends fellow soldier Dan Hill on the battlefields of Rhodesia and Vietnam. The second half shifts forward several decades, finding Rescorla retired from the Army and serving as vice president for security at Morgan Stanley, the largest tenant at the World Trade Center.
"Basically, after the 1993 World Trade Center attack, Rick knew that something else was coming, most probably the idea of airplanes flying into the towers," Theofanidis says. "And so he started training his people in a ridiculous military fashion — in retrospect, obviously brilliant — but at the time it must have seemed obsessive to have all of his people do these stair drills once a month to make sure they could get down in case of fire and smoke. It's kind of shocking. The more you look into it, the more you see how prescient these guys were."
The real-life Rescorla saved nearly 2700 lives on Sept. 11, 2001. Determined to escort everyone to safety — he literally sang them down the stairs — he never emerged from the second tower before it collapsed. But for Theofanidis, collapsing buildings and exploding planes are not the way to tell the story of Sept. 11.
"You don't make the story about the actual physical events of that day," the composer says. "You make it about people, and the value of their lives. We focused primarily on the characters, their life stories and the meaning of their lives in the context of these events."
Another important theme, Theofanidis says, lies within the opera's title, and the powerful conviction of its lead characters.
"What do we do with a soldier's heart, once the war is over?" he asks. "The answer is there's always a need for that kind of heart, that kind of strength. There are moments when the context calls for that set of skills, and that way of thinking is incredibly invaluable on a societal level, and these guys hit it at the right moment."