SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a story of a group of friends from Michigan's Upper Peninsula who go off to war.

First, the story of an old soldier who risks his life to save others from a burning building. He saves thousands but perishes in the flames, leaving behind the great love of his life. It's the true story of Rick Rescorla who died when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11. It's also the subject of a new opera premiering tonight in San Francisco.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports on "Heart of a Soldier."

LAURA SYDELL: Right after the fall of the Twin Towers, journalist James Stewart was doing some reporting about Wall Street for The New Yorker. Someone told him that Morgan Stanley, one of the firms with offices in the towers, had almost no casualties.

JAMES STEWART: And that just kind of lodged in my mind as an oddity, because so many other firms were either completely wiped out, nearly wiped out, horrible losses.

SYDELL: Stewart started to ask around to find out why Morgan Stanley had been an exception.

STEWART: Someone finally said, I think it was because there was this one guy who was in charge of security there, who defied the order to stay in the tower and got everyone out.

SYDELL: That guy was Rick Rescorla, a Vietnam veteran with a long history of heroic deeds. His story was especially sad to Stewart because after a failed marriage, Rescorla had met the love of his life. Susan Greer, who was also in her 50's and divorced.

SUSAN GREER: We could be in the car holding hands. It would be the most wonderful thing in the world. You know, it was the most happiest wonderful time. I don't know, it was just - just amazing to have someone who you're just both so in love with each other. I felt like I had a new chance in life.

SYDELL: But love and duty would eventually come into conflict when terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As head of security at Morgan Stanley, Rescorla evacuated some 2,700 employees from the South Tower and then went back up to make sure no one was left behind.

STEWART: Rick had decided that there was something more important in life than even those great loves of his life, and that was to save others who were in his care.

SYDELL: James Stewart turned Rescorla's story into a book called "Heart of a Soldier." Opera director Francesca Zambello was struggling with how to confront the tragedies of September 11th as an artist, and she read "Heart of a Soldier."

FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO: And I was immediately taken by the story, that it had all the elements that one thinks of when you think of, in quotes, "grand opera." It had huge themes of passion and bravery and courage. And also at the core of it, something that you can't have any theater piece without, which is love stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

THOMAS HAMPSON: (as Rick Rescorla) (Singing) Are you there? March into your heartbeat...

SYDELL: Tonight, 10 years later, "Heart of a Soldier" opens at the San Francisco Opera. The work tells the story of Rescorla's life up to the events of September 11th. The first act begins with his childhood in Britain, where he befriended American soldiers on their way to Normandy during World War II. Composer Christopher Theofanidis says Rescorla struggled with seeing his new friends go off to war.

CHRISTOPHER THEOFANIDIS: Rick, as a little boy, learns his first lesson in soldiering which is, you know, training your heart to let go when you have to. That's a part of being a soldier and having the strength to get through that. And he says to the American GIs, he teaches them this song: Train your heart to not give out, though what's to come it cannot know.

SYDELL: As an adult, Rescorla serves on the British colonial police force in Rhodesia. His character, played by Thomas Hampson, sings the same song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HAMPSON: (as Rick Rescorla) (Singing)

SYDELL: Rescorla was dedicated to being a great soldier. And when he learned of the Vietnam War, he volunteered for service in the U.S. Army. The opera shows Rescorla as a platoon leader in the heat of battle. His men struggle under pressure, taking stimulants like Dexedrine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HAMPSON: (as Rick Rescorla) (Singing)

SYDELL: Composer Christopher Theofanidis says Rescorla also had a habit of teaching his troops to sing in battle.

THEOFANIDIS: One of the things I think he understood really strongly was that music and song unite people in a really strong way. He had taught his charges to sing to overcome their fear, their own sense of disorder.

SYDELL: And he did the same thing with the employees of Morgan Stanley who were in his charge. When he trained them how to evacuate, he

THEOFANIDIS: ...people in a really strong way. He had taught his charges to sing to overcome their fear, their own sense of disorder.

SYDELL: And he did the same thing with the employees of Morgan Stanley who were in his charge. When he trained them how to evacuate he told them to sing. And when he helped them out of the burning tower he told them...

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

HAMPSON: (Singing) Train your heart to not give out, though what's to come it cannot know. Remember sing (unintelligible).

CHORUS: (Singing) Train your heart to not give out, though what's to come it cannot know.

HAMPSON: (Singing) (unintelligible) beside you.

SYDELL: But Rescorla's sacrifice is not the only tragedy in this opera or the story. He calls his wife Susan from the towers. She begs him to come out alive. Melody Moore sings the role of Susan Greer-Rescorla.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

HAMPSON: (Singing) You take (unintelligible).

MELODY MOORE: (Singing) You take (unintelligible).

SYDELL: Director Francesca Zambello says the struggle between duty and love is the theme of many great dramas. Zambello says she was drawn to how Susan Rescorla had come to understand her husband - and train her own heart.

ZAMBELLO: Her journey was to me what was interesting dramatically - to see that she comes to understand that. And now I get it. I mean I get why he did it and why that heart of a soldier is different than us. I'm a mortal. He wasn't.

SYDELL: Though it's 10 years since the devastating attack on the World Trade Center, the events are still fresh in many people's minds and hearts. But Zambello hopes that the themes and the music brought out in this one story of heroism and love will still touch people many years from now. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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