Connecticut novelist Harriet Scott Chessman takes on a piece of Vietnam history, the My Lai Massacre, in an opera.
The new opera My Lai, with music by Jonathan Berger and libretto by Connecticut author Harriet Scott Chessman, opens the 2017 Next Wave Festival at Brooklyn Academy of Music. It won’t be the first time that the horrors of the Vietnam War have made their way into the American cultural vision. The musical Hair captured the pain of the era, and the musical Miss Saigon transported the Madama Butterfly story from turn-of-the-century Japan to 1975 Saigon. Playwright David Rabe’s Vietnam War Trilogy—The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones, and Streamers—explored the pain of the period, as did Terrence McNally’s Bringing it All Back Home. My Lai, however, may be the first opera to deal with the Vietnam war to be funded by The National Endowment For The Arts, and commissioned and performed by the Kronos Quartet.
Chessman has spent most of her career writing fiction. Her five novels have made the San Francisco Chronicle’s Best Books list, and her work has been featured nationally. Writing an opera libretto was not on her radar—until she met Berger.
Chessman met Berger, co-director of the Stanford University Arts Initiative, through her husband. “The idea was Jonathan’s,” says Chessman of writing the libretto. “He had been drawn to the figure of Hugh Thompson (the helicopter pilot who intervened in the My Lai massacre) for many years. Jonathan knew he wanted the opera to have one singer (Thompson), and to take place in a bare room in the VA Hospital in the South, where Hugh lived his last days, sick with cancer. He knew he wanted the opera to be about Thompson’s memory of that morning in South Vietnam.”
They began their collaboration on what became My Lai in 2013. First Chessman wrote the libretto, her first attempt at opera. “Jonathan responded to various drafts of the libretto, for a year and a half, before he started to compose the music,” she says. “Of course, I had Jonathan’s other music, two chamber operas, Theotokia and The War Reporter, in my head as I wrote. I understood the tone and the resonance, the meaning he was going for.”
Chessman and Berger have tweaked My Lai after initial performances at Stanford and Chicago in 2015. “Essentially, though,” says Chessman, “the primary way My Lai is changing is through the beautiful, sharp direction of Mark DeChiazzo, who is also the creator of the videography, and through the growth of the character Hugh Thompson, in Rinde Eckert’s superb performances.”
After the performances September 27-30, The Kronos Quartet will tour My Lai internationally. Chessman, meanwhile, will get to work on a new libretto and a book of short stories.
Chessman and Berger have collaborated on a second work, Death by Drowning, a piece for chamber group and tenor inspired by a Yiddish folk tale. It premieres at Stanford on October 26th, at the Daniel Pearl World Music Days Concert.
Chessman evolved into a New Englander. “Each summer in my childhood we lived in New Hampshire for two months, and the rich, peaceful beauty of that area has always felt like a touchstone for me,” she says, noting she attended school in New England at Northfield Mount Hermon, Wellesley College, and Yale University before settling in Connecticut for almost 30 years. Then, she had a stint in California, but admits she always “felt that New England was home.”
“The peacefulness of the Connecticut shoreline, and the whole landscape of New England: water, meadows, woods, hills, cities, villages inspires me,” she says. “Our house is in the woods, next to the Guilford Conservation Land Trust, and this spot is rich in the quiet I need for writing. This is home.”
Harriett Scott Chessman
Top image: Performance of My Lai, photo by Zoran Orlic.