50 Years After The My Lai Massacre, An Opera Tells The Story The My Lai Massacre occurred 50 years ago this week in Vietnam. An opera featuring the Kronos Quartet and Van-Anh Vanessa Vo tells the story of an American soldier who tried to stop his own troops.
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50 Years After The My Lai Massacre, An Opera Confronts The Past

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50 Years After The My Lai Massacre, An Opera Confronts The Past

50 Years After The My Lai Massacre, An Opera Confronts The Past

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One of the most horrifying events in a terrible war, the My Lai Massacre, occurred 50 years ago yesterday in Vietnam. The story never would have gotten out had it not been for a U.S. soldier who stood up against his own troops and reported their actions. He's become the subject of an opera that's being performed all over the country. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. vividly remembered in a 1989 documentary the day he and his crew were out doing reconnaissance and witnessed something awful.


HUGH THOMPSON JR.: During flying around, we came across a ditch. It had bodies in it. A lot of women, kids, old men.

ULABY: Soon, Thompson realized American soldiers were on a bloody rampage, raping and killing Vietnamese civilians.


RINDE ECKERT: (As Hugh Thompson, singing) I'm going to stop this madness.

ULABY: Hugh Thompson is the only character in the chamber opera, "My Lai." It takes place entirely in his head. Thompson's at the end of his life, remembering how he tried to stop the massacre. He landed his helicopter repeatedly to help civilians. At one point, he flew it down between fleeing villagers and advancing American soldiers. He ordered his crew to shoot the Americans if they kept slaughtering innocent people.


ECKERT: (As Hugh Thompson, singing) Men, pick up your guns, take aim.

ULABY: Thompson reported the massacre when he got back to base, but the Army tried to cover it up. Thompson's fellow soldiers accused him of being on the wrong side. They shunned him. He received death threats. After Thompson testified about My Lai in 1969, a member of Congress threatened to have him court martialed. But Thompson never doubted his choices, says librettist Harriet Scott Chessman.

HARRIET SCOTT CHESSMAN: His character just shines. He was extraordinary.

ULABY: But Chessman says it wasn't easy to write a character so single-mindedly determined to intervene.

CHESSMAN: He didn't have to go back down. So I had to try to understand how in God's name he went back down.

ULABY: Taking on an opera about a notorious American war crime and the guy who tried to stop it felt necessary to Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington.

DAVID HARRINGTON: People don't usually take stands. They are concerned about what other people think or the percentages or the polls or something like that. But on that day in My Lai, Hugh Thompson just reacted to injustice.


ECKERT: (As Hugh Thompson, singing) What do I do? What would you do?

ULABY: Very few people had heard of Hugh Thompson when Americans at home became aware of the massacre through news reports and gruesome photographs, the sort we rarely see from wars today. It was a formative moment for composer Jonathan Berger.

JONATHAN BERGER: I was 13, 14 years old when it happened. Riveting moment for me. It was sort of my political awakening.

ULABY: Berger had already explored Thompson's story in a piano concerto when he teamed up with Kronos Quartet and a well-known Vietnamese musician.


ULABY: Von Anh Vo (ph) was born the year the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

VON ANH VO: I still see the consequences.

ULABY: Vo is a master of traditional Vietnamese instruments. As a child in Hanoi, she learned about the My Lai massacre in school. This music is a memorial, she says, to the murdered civilians and to Thompson and his crew.


ECKERT: (As Hugh Thompson, singing unintelligibly).

ULABY: There's a moment in the opera when Thompson, who suffered after the war from PTSD, can't stop dwelling on the ditch where he saw all the bodies. It becomes the duet between singer Rinde Eckert and Vo playing a Vietnamese stringed instrument called a Dan Bau.

VO: So the Dan Bau like another crying voice.


ECKERT: As Hugh Thompson, singing) The ditch.

VO: Each time when I play that I still feel the pain. And then when the quartet came in, it's just like we are three intertwined with each other. And then it's like we all cry at that moment.


CHESSMAN: I can't say that this country as a country really learned very much from all of this.

ULABY: Librettist Harriet Scott Chessman says it's hard not to consider the relevance of Hugh Thompson's story when the United States is still at war and when the abuse of people perceived as enemies is back in the headlines. Thirty years after My Lai, Hugh Thompson was given a medal by the military for his bravery there. And he told NPR how it felt to have waited so long to be recognized.


THOMPSON JR.: I'm not bitter. I'm confused. I did a damn good job in the service.

ULABY: Before he died, Thompson counseled veterans and gave numerous speeches, including at West Point, about the ethics of combat. Harriet Scott Chessman says when you think about Thompson landing his helicopter again and again to protect people who could not protect themselves, it raises a question for all of us.

CHESSMAN: Do we hover, or do we dive down?

ULABY: A moral metaphor for 1968 and 2018. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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