“The My Lai massacre is but one of many painful and ugly scars for which our country bears responsibility. The government’s attempt to hide and distort the story of the My Lai massacre should serve a stark reminder of the moral and ethical dangers of governmental abuse of power.”
– Jonathan Berger
Fifty years ago on March 16, 1968 the American soldiers of Charlie Company wantonly and brutally slaughtered five hundred Vietnamese women, children, and elderly men, innocent unarmed civilians in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. For those of us who remember My Lai and its images it was shocking and unthinkable, not only because of its senseless savagery, but because the massacre was committed by young Americans in opposition to everything we’d been raised to believe were American values, and then was kept hidden by those in power.
Covered up by U.S. Army officials for almost a year, when all the facts of this horrific incident finally came to light it sparked international outrage. One of the darkest moments amongst the many deceits and betrayals of the long drawn-out Vietnam War (otherwise known as the American War by the Vietnamese), the story of the My Lai Massacre traumatized the nation, and changed public perception of the war and its justifications.
Sadly half a century later we are no longer shocked or outraged at the news of another such massacre every day around the world. Nor are we any longer surprised as our own children are senselessly gunned down in their classrooms by one of their own. My Lai and its likes have become “normalized” and internalized. Reality no longer seems real. Except of course for the recipients of the violence.
Thus it is appropriate and fitting in this time of political madness that My Lai should be revisited in an artwork. This time around in composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Harriet Scott Chessman’s chamber opera, written for the Kronos Quartet, tenor Rinde Eckert, and virtuoso Vietnamese musician Vân-Ánh Võ, we get to experience My Lai from a different more personal perspective. Berger and Chessman wisely avoided the trap of an expository documentary narrative with all its bloody imagery. Instead, this opera is a ghost story relived over and over again in the haunted psyche of the man at the center of this drama, the witness who had the courage to tell the truth to the world.
Appalled by what he saw happening below, 24 year-old reconnaissance helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. tried to intervene in the atrocities, making three unauthorized landings with his two crewmen in an effort to stop the killing and help the villagers. He risked his own life and saved a little boy, among others. Although his anguished reports to his superiors brought a halt to the immediate action, it did not change the “free fire zone” killing policy. Instead as a result of his subsequent public testimony, Thompson was vilified for his act of conscience by Congress and President Nixon, and threatened with court-martial. Neither the revelations of Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers, nor the trial of Lt. Calley exonerated him. His heroism was not recognized and awarded until 1999.
Portrayed by tenor Rinde Eckert with enormous empathy and pathos, Thompson is a man possessed by his memories. We meet him in a hospital room in the last days of his life, dying of cancer, as he revisits the scene of the original trauma in flashbacks that reside in his consciousness and have never left him. It is an internal hallucinatory journey blurring the boundaries between past and present. The rear projections on the curtained screen of his hospital room are flickering black and white images of helicopters and rice fields, and shadowy figures of soldiers and villagers, fragmented and fleeting as in a dream. Only in this case more like a recurring nightmare.
I am caught in this.
Ah, I am caught in this.
It will never be over.
I will always be in it,
shouting at the captain.
I’m still shouting.
The opera is set in three sections corresponding to Thompson’s three unauthorized landings, each with several dramatic song cycles that capture elements of what he has witnessed and the post-traumatic stress endured over decades. Eckert’s powerful voice and body convey Thompson’s pain, sorrow, bafflement, indignation, regret, and resignation. Chessman’s libretto is a brilliant montage of moments, snapshot flashes of images, bursts of emotions, slivers of repeating memories that ebb and flow in Thompson’s inner monolog as he confronts his own impending death. His despair is agonizing as he drifts from agitation to confusion to withdrawal, curled in a corner in a blanket.
Eckert is confined to his stark hospital room at the center of the stage, and flanked by the Kronos Quartet on one side, and the imposing presence of Vân-Ánh Võ’s traditional Vietnamese folk instruments, including percussion, t’rưng, and đàn tranh, and the exquisite single-stringed đàn bầu, on the other. Berger’s music for the Kronos String Quartet effectively expresses the violence of the war and the tension and conflict between Thompson and Lt Calley the commanding officer on the ground, as well as Thompson’s own internal psychological struggle. It is harsh, dissonant, jarring and compelling, deepening the sense of urgency implicit in the imagery. Darkly discordant tonalities support Eckert’s vocal range, the undercurrents of meaning in his open-throated howl and shifting moods.
You can’t just hover.
You have to go down,
down into the madness.
You have to leave your life behind
and dive, dive and dive
into the madness.
And dive, and dive and dive,
into the madness.
Võ’s musical performance provides an important contrast to the Quartet, resituating the story within the Vietnamese experience. It opens with a lullaby. There is a heart-wrenching sweetness, a melancholic tenderness to the melodies. Võ’s lyricism eloquently reflects both her country and Thompson’s sorrow and suffering, acknowledging their shared grief and sacrifices. Each scene or “song” is punctuated by the sound of a gong, marking both the losses and the passage of time. The abrasive intensity of Berger’s score for Kronos, in concert with Vo’s poignant evocation of place reveals the ways we are bound together in tragedy, redemption and reconciliation.
Which brings us back to Chessman’s libretto in which the first two Landings each end with a disorienting parody of Thompson’s interrogation in the form of a TV game show. It demonstrates how his testimony was turned against him, as it makes a mockery of the official inquiries. However, considering the way our current head of state and his cronies blatantly lie, manipulate the truth to their own ends, and defiantly spit in the face of moral decency, there is a potent resonance in these disconcerting interjections.
Hugh Thompson Jr. died in 2006, and it is important today for us to remember that without his determination to speak up to power many more would have died. Still, the little boy he saved haunts him, as do those he could not. His attempt to stop the carnage is only half the story. The other half is the price paid for making humane, moral, and ethical choices. And while it is heartening and appropriate on this 50 year anniversary for Thompson’s sacrifices to be posthumously honored and recognized in Jon Wiener’s Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times on March 16, 2018, it will too quickly be erased by today’s latest shocking tweets.
Jonathan Berger’s opera on the other hand, has the power to stay in our consciousness because it is about the human cost of ill-conceived and unjustified wars, and the lies that perpetrate and perpetuate them, told not as spectacle but through the sensitive portrayal of one man’s profound personal journey when confronted with an incomprehensible evil committed by one’s own peers, ordered and endorsed by those in command. My Lai the opera is a harrowing portrait of the toll such madness takes on the individual soul, and that of the nation.
Once more the ditch
An ocean of bodies now
Too many to count
Small and smaller
in the morning sun…
Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA)
Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert and Vân-Ánh Võ
Jonathan Berger, composer
Harriet Scott Chessman, libretto
David Harrington, violin
John Sherba, violin
Hank Dutt, viola
Sunny Yang, cello
Rinde Eckert, vocalist
Vân-Ánh Võ, t’rưng, đàn bầu, đàn tranh
Friday, March 9, 2018 at 8 PM
Royce Hall, UCLA