The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The new opera “Heart of a Soldier” seems a major 9/11 masterpiece – or does it? | September 25, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

When does commemorative music transcend the occasion it commemorates?

It is a timely question on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Even more than works by John Adams and Steve Reich, composer Christopher Theofanidis’ new opera “Heart of a Solder” seems to have all the makings of a masterpiece about 9/11.

It is based on the best-selling non-fiction book by James B. Stewart. It has a deeply appealing hero-protagonist. And it covers conflicts from Vietnam to 9/11.

In case you missed them, just listen to and read some of these advance stories:

But then came the world premiere performances – with baritone Thomas Hampson (below) in the title role — in San Francisco, and the reviews that strike me as tepid and disappointing, or at least disappointed, for the most part.

On the other hand, this wouldn’t be the first time a work that is initially panned turns out to have longer legs and more lasting value or staying power. Can you say Bach? Mozart? Beethoven? Mahler?

Here are some of the reviews:

Did you see or hear “Heart of a Soldier”?

What do you think? Is it powerful, but flawed? A flop? Or is it a masterpiece sure to be restaged in the future?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I went. I liked it. I think it needs a bit of rethinking, but for me it worked. But what do I know? I’m just an oboe player. 🙂

    Comment by pattyoboe — September 26, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

  2. I think they should have the baritone converting to Islam and leaving and the tenor staying.

    Comment by Catherine Champion — September 26, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

  3. What we need more than anything is not gritty, realistic opera, unless that form of opera moves the art form forward. (And I am not sure that it would.) What we need is a next generation of music and story that advances the discipline in a meaningful way. I would hate to think of opera as an anachronistic form of entertainment specific to a certain era, but I haven’t yet seen major initiatives that move the needle. Maybe that only comes through the lens of time.

    Comment by Darth Critcus — September 25, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

  4. I found Heart of a Soldier to be a terrible mistake and an almost complete failure as an opera. My take on it can be found here:

    Comment by John Maqrcher — September 25, 2011 @ 11:48 am

    • Hi John,
      Thank you for reading and replying with such a specific link.
      I look forward to it.
      Happy listening.

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 25, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  5. I didn’t see it, and wish I could have. So I’m not really qualified to say much about it, except that I’m sure my friend Melody Moore was fabulous as always. But I do want to say, generally, that I wish opera composers and librettists would stop trying for gritty realism and embrace the inherent unreality (singing! orchestras! high notes!) that opera embodies.

    Comment by Scott — September 25, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    • Hi Scott,
      I think I am with you.
      I go to the opera mainly for the music — not the story or acting, sets or costumes.
      That can find in the theater, a novel or a movie.
      But that also probably makes me less than an ideal opera fan.
      Thanks for weighing in.

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 25, 2011 @ 11:04 am

      • Makes sense, Jake. I go for the overall experience, and the ways in which music heightens drama, and acting ramps up the stakes in the music, and so on. I’m a bit of an opera junkie. So I don’t love Realism as a “thing” in opera … I feel it plays away from opera’s strengths and towards its weaknesses. Opera is best when it transcends reality and finds magic and larger-than-life drama and emotions so big that speech can’t contain it, so song is required. If it goes for gritty realism, it’s always going to lose out to film and theater. You can’t say one short sentence that stretches out and lasts 45 seconds and have it be realistic.

        Comment by Scott — September 25, 2011 @ 11:39 am

      • Scott,
        And you make great sense in explaining what you look for in opera.
        I” confess: I am more of an piano and chamber music junkie.
        When I want words, I go to literature.
        (My training, after all, is a PhD in French lit.)
        But I too like opera to be larger than life,
        to take me out of myself and my world,,
        even when the pretext is plain old small day-to-day life.
        Realism too can soar in the right hands,
        and transcend itself or its origins.
        Thanks, as always, for enlightening and enlightened remarks that provoke my own thinking.

        Comment by welltemperedear — September 25, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

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