“I was first attracted to the story of Vietnam era prisoner of war, Jim Thompson, because it was so dramatic,” composer Tom Cipullo said in a recent phone interview. He was speaking about his opera, Glory Denied. It opened, in a regional premiere, as part of the Fort Worth Opera Festival season on Sunday in McDavid Studio, next to Bass Hall.
Dramatic is an understatement. In its operatic form, it is horrifying, riveting, involving, shocking, inspiring, overwhelming, appalling and devastating—in that order.
Thompson was held in horrible conditions in a North Vietnam prison, and his story is told in a 2001 book by Tom Philpott. He endured nine years, the longest time of any American POW, of being constantly beaten, abused and starved; sadistically tortured both mentally and physically. Through the concentrated intensity that only opera can conjure, Cipullo forces the audience to share that same raw pain and hopelessness.
The duality of then and now, which is the crux of the story, is cleverly resolved by having both time periods on stage at the same time. There are two Thompsons: one (Younger) is in the prison, feeling the lash. The other Thompson (Older) is home in our present, feeling the alienation. We also enter the tormented life of his wife as two singers portray her in the same then and now. Young Alyce writes to her husband about the trivialities of daily life. Older Alyce is an embittered woman, who moved on when she thought he was dead, but must somehow gather the courage to cope with him, and the situation, when he suddenly reappears.
Stephen Chudej’s costumes help keep track of the times and places. Since the production is mounted on a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides, Richard Kagey’s sets are little more than platforms and a few pieces of furniture. Yet, boiled down to only what you need to sit on or in which to hoard a few possessions, his plain secondhand store treasures convey their message with a stark simplicity.
Dean Anthony does marvels as a director, moving his actors only when needed for dramatic effect. They never seem stationary yet they hardly move. The idea of having them discard everything they touch when they are through with whatever it is leaves the stage strewn with debris. Perhaps this is a double metaphor for the disposability of both our modern lives and once-valued possessions and the fact that eventually, everything becomes garbage.
Cipullo gives us a quartet. He casts Thompson (Younger) as a tenor, played by a heartbreakingly vulnerable David Blalock, and Thompson (Older) as a baritone, played by an astounding Michael Mayes. Lyric soprano Sydney Mancasola plays the younger Alyce, and the more spinto soprano Caroline Worra gives an amazing performance as the older Alyce.
All four do an outstanding job, both vocally and dramatically, but that phrase is inadequate to describe their accomplishments in these roles. The vocal ranges of the composer’s writing push all four singers beyond any reasonable expectations at both the top and bottom of the voices. Yet, all four have such secure techniques that there isn’t a single note that sounds unreasonably forced or out of line. Dynamics also push the limits on both ends of the scale yet, even when singing full out and red faced at the effort, none of the singers overdrive their instruments, although the temptation to do so must be overwhelming.
Although divided into two acts—Cipullo calls them tableaux—the show is played without pause. This means that no one—not singers, instrumentalists nor audience members—has a chance to catch their breath for the entire two hours, plus or minus.
The first tableau is called “In Captivity.” Here, we see Older remembering his brutal treatment as Younger endures it. Many times, they echo each other, or one will repeat a crucial word in another’s narrative. Younger feels the beating that Older describes. Most creepily, they frequently mirror each other’s movements, overcoming the pain in their crippled bodies to simply walk or hold something in their gnarled hands.
Younger Alyce prattles on, in letters to Younger, about the nothings that make up our daily lives. Both of them are building up an idealized picture of each other, based on the people they were when they were last together. Of course, this bears little resemblance to the people they have become since they were apart and living under as different a pair of situations as you could imagine. Alyce tries to move on, beginning a relationship with another man, telling the children that their father was killed in the war, and beginning the procedure to have Thompson declared legally dead. Older Alyce looks back, left with nothing but bitterness.
Older Thompson returns to a topsy-turvy world. Nothing is the same or even close to what he projected it would be from remembrances. Completely missing is younger Alyce, the docile pre-liberation housewife he left behind. Older Alyce’s world, which she managed to retool with considerable fortitude and against substantial odds, is also upended in that same moment. She tries to explain this to her unexpectedly returning husband, in a solo aria, the most touching moment in the score. She offers to vanish and allow him to rebuild his life without her, but only “After You Hear Me Out.”
Cipullo says of this aria: “If you are going to write an opera, you should at least give the soprano a great aria.”
Cipullo’s score is complex in the extreme. The vocal writing is angular and he changes time signature and pace nearly every measure. Rhythmic patterns are irregular, but notated, making conductor Tyson Deaton’s job positively Herculean. Even worse, he is in the back of the stage, the singers are unable to see him except in tiny monitors up in the corners, and his small chamber orchestra is extruded across the back, just two abreast.
Calm, cool and confident, keeping his constantly changing but precise beat pattern within a reserved two-foot frame, the unflappable Deaton delivers a passionate and virtuoso performance by force of will.
Likewise, the small orchestral ensemble of a just few players has as difficult a job. There isn’t a single measure where they don’t have to count like crazy while playing demanding music. Adding to their challenges, they are all solo players and thus don’t have even a stand partner on which to depend.
“I did a special orchestration for Fort Worth. I only use flute, clarinet, horn, harp, piano string quartet and a very busy percussionist,” the composer explains. “Also, I have an orchestration for 16 and one for full orchestra. A composer has to be flexible. If you hope that an opera company is going to do your work, you have to give them every advantage.”
As far as Cipullo’s musical language goes, it is difficult to explain or describe, at least from hearing Glory Denied. The composer says that he is, basically, a tonal composer, but that “… the subject matter [of Glory Denied] brought out the dissonance in me.”
It certainly did.
The score is a thicket of dissonance that occasionally bursts into a glorious major chord resolution, being all the more welcome by its rarity. In fact, such moments are so scarce that they stick in the memory, like when the Older Thompson revels in his return and says, “I am home.”
You are reminded of gloomy climates, like Amsterdam or Seattle, where everyone runs out into the street when the sun pokes out for even an instant.
The only problem with Glory Denied, other than the fact that it offers a couple of false windups for an ending, is its unrelenting dour intensity. Constantly in-your-face, with high notes sung at the extremes of the vocal ranges and unimaginable events starkly laid bare, you can become mentally exhausted before the end. In many ways, it is a modern day take on the German Expressionists. Glory Denied brings to mind the series of paintings by Edvard Munch entitled Der Schrei der Natur, or The Scream, sometimes The Cry.
Thompson and Alyce, in both of their age incarnations, cry and scream mightily against the downward swirl of events in which they are trapped, helplessly headed for the drain.
A lighter moment to break the tension would be welcome. For example, there is a brilliant aria that Older Thompson sings in which he lists everything that happened while he was imprisoned: “Credit cards, fast food, Japanese cars, topless bars, turn on, tune in, freak out.”
Mayes delivers this as a screed, with every word spit out like a curse, as if every item mentioned is a hammer landing on the sore thumb that is his life. The same music could be delivered with some humor, or at least an incredulous shrug, giving the audience a moment to smile, perchance to laugh, as we remember our history painted with objects. However, that would have been a different opera. This one never smiles for an instant.
It ends with some shaky ray of hope for the pair, as Older musters a happy face and addresses the congregation in the modest church where he and Alyce were married. However, somehow, you don’t believe it. It falls hollow on the ears.
On the other hand, it is foolish to bet against the resilience of humans. We are hard to defeat. As Albert Schweitzer said, "One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity."
◊ Glory Denied repeats 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays through May 11. The remainder of the Fort Worth Opera Festival schedule is below:
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 23 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 24 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
2 p.m. Saturday, April 27 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27 >> Bass Hall >> The Daughter of the Regiment
2 p.m. Sunday, April 28 >> Bass Hall >> La bohème
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 30 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 1 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
7:30 p.m. Friday, May 3 >> Bass Hall >> La bohème
2 p.m. Saturday, May 4 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 4 >> Bass Hall >> Ariadne auf Naxos
2 p.m. Sunday, May 5 >> Bass Hall >> The Daughter of the Regiment
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 7 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
6 p.m. Thursday, May 9 >> McDavid Studio >> Frontiers Showcase #1
3 p.m. Friday, May 10 >> McDavid Studio >> Frontiers Showcase #1
7:30 p.m. Friday, May 10 >> Bass Hall >> The Daughter of the Regiment
2 p.m. Saturday, May 11 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
2 p.m. Sunday, May 12 >> Bass Hall >> Ariadne auf Naxos