Pittsburgh Opera’s “Second Stage” productions of new operas, which account for one of the six operas it stages each season, fulfill one of the company’s most vital missions.
We love the old operas that dominate programming everywhere because of their great music serving universal themes. Contemporary opera has the advantage of addressing issues of our own lifetime.
To that end, Pittsburgh Opera will present “Glory Denied” by Tom Cipullo in a Second Stage production Feb. 23 to March 3 at its Pittsburgh headquarters.
The opera is based on the book “Glory Denied” by Thomas Philpott, which tells the story of Jim Thompson, an American hero who was the longest held American prisoner during the Vietnam War. The late Sen. John McCain, also a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down, wrote the introduction to the book.
Cipullo discovered “Glory Denied” while working at the famous McDowell Colony for artists when he read a New York Times book review. He wanted to write an opera and sensed the potential of Thompson’s story. After ordering and reading the book he became convinced it would be his first opera.
The composer is 62 and says the Vietnam era is part of his formative years.
“I wanted to tell that story. I wanted to reenact the most important parts of the story. Those were less about Col. Thompson’s family and more about the time in which he lived and how the nation changed from 1964 to 1973,” he says.
Nearly all the words of the libretto are the actual words of the real people. But to convey how the life in the U.S. changed during the Vietnam War, Cipullo wrote the words to one number. He called it a “Catalog Aria,” a nice allusion to one of the many famous excerpts from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which will open Pittsburgh Opera’s 2019-20 season.
Cipullo says it was great fun to think about and write an aria which includes Teflon cookware, men with long hair, stay-pressed shirts and miniskirts.
“Young people don’t realize how much our country changed in those years,” he says. “If you look at high school year books in 1964, all the boys are in jackets and ties and have short hair. Yearbooks from 1973 look like it’s a different planet with the counter-culture and doing your own thing. I think Col. Thompson must have felt he came back to Mars when he returned in 1973.”
The opera is in two acts: In Captivity and Welcome Home, and lasts about 70 minutes. “Welcome Home” is an ironic title, because Thompson was only known to be missing in action and his wife Alyce had moved on to another man. Thompson and his wife are the opera’s only characters, with different singers for the two acts.
Baritone Ben Taylor will play Thompson in Act II, which he says is a “blast to perform.” He learned his part in the opera first, then read the book for nuances of characterization.
“To act this role in a way that’s truthful to the person and story and be dramatically engaging is tough,” Taylor says. “The singing part is very difficult as far as memorizing and getting it into your body. But I will give Cipullo credit that, as a great composer would, he gives the singer the tools (in the music itself) to learn it.”
“Glory Denied” has been a big success for Cipullo, with more than 20 productions since 2007 and four more set for next season. He praises Pittsburgh Opera for its presentation of contemporary operas.
“Who’s to say,” asks Cipullo, “opera can’t have a new golden age in America in the 21st century?”