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Heart of a Soldier: Interview with Thomas Hampson

Thomas Hampson loves to talk, and he’s good at it. Perhaps he does not love doing interviews quite as much, but if so he’s got an ingenious way to avoid them: talk right through it. As long as he’s talking he’s steering the message. Because what he has to say is intelligent, thought through, and—most of it—genuinely interesting and enthusiastic, one just sits there and lets him go on. The really interesting stuff—a gratifying and quite personal conversation—comes, if it happens at all, after the first 30, 40 minute barrage is gotten over with.

When early attempts to throw him a little off guard during an interview some months ago failed to get anywhere, I threw him a cue that I knew would keep him be busy for a while: “Heart of a Soldier…” is all I said, referring to Christopher Theofanidis and Donna DiNovelli’s opera based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name (James B. Stewart) that will premiere at the San Francisco Opera September 10th, this year. This is what followed, in a virtually uninterrupted stream of passion.

“YES! Fabulous story! It’s such an honor to play this guy, my god! I couldn’t believe it… the whole idea interested me from the get-go. It was an interesting story, I was told a little bit about this guy, Rick Rescorla… the idea of doing an opera in America around the time, if not right at the time of ten years after 9/11 made sense to me, because it felt like a thing we should do… because ten years after we can actually talk about it on a lot of levels what 9/11 was all about and what it meant to different people… but then I read the book, obviously… And you know, that guy… a soldier’s soldier, a man’s man. With this tremendous imaginative spirit inside. Loves creative poetry, loves Kipping—of course, Kippling has always been the soldier’s poet… You know, goes to the real essence of existential parts of Kippling’s poetry. He is a soldier for hire, but you want to believe… you know… I don’t think all mercenary soldiers are just awful people, trying to get a buck to kill something. I think that there is tradition… certainly was still in the 60s, where he was busy, of believing in actions, military actions, finding your way into that fight without it necessarily being about the Fatherland and Motherland and everything else. So he found himself in Rhodesia. And the reason why that spins out of it… he was always, as an Englishman, fascinated with America and found himself drawn into Vietnam for two reasons. Because he believed that there was something going on there that needed to be done. But he also wanted to become an American and he thought: this would be a great way of doing both, one after the other. And turned out to become very disillusioned with the military and felt that the prosecution of the Vietnam War was just a horrible mistake in so many ways but in his service in Vietnam distinguished himself beyond normal recognition of any colleague, any superior officer, and any grunt that worked underneath him. This guy was just a legendary figure of humanity and figure of compassion and figure of discipline and strength and heroism in the …. You know, heroes are just normal people that take on the challenge of extraordinary circumstances. And don’t think about it but just do it, because they know that has to be done. And that’s what this guy did his whole life. And after all this winds down, he quits the military, becomes an American citizen, living in New York, and he goes down to Oklahoma and gets a Masters degree in creative writing, because that’s what he always wanted to do. Sing songs all the time; he’s known as the singing soldier. Not some sort of happy git, but when the crunch goes, here comes the chance. Here come the songs that galvanized the men, that unified them. That’s one reason they stayed alive in one of the greatest onslaughts in the middle of the Vietnam War. Because they scared the shit out of the Vietcong by singing. Vietcong didn’t have a fucking clue what was coming at them. They didn’t know what was going on… it was just all this guys singing these rounds. Unbelievable stories… this guy was amazing. Then he goes on and comes back and gets a legal degree. Becomes a lawyer. And then he finds himself back in New York and someone taps him for a job because he knows him from their previous soldier life… asks him to take over in security for Dean Whitter Reynolds.

He and his wonderful friend Dan Hill, who is still alive, who I met a couple months ago – they were very, very close friends, soul mates, you know… they became sort of the lead investigators after the 1993 bombings, about which they had warned authorities about, but were ignored…

And even then the reports they issued were about threats from the air; vulnerabilities to the building… but then they asked Rick Rescorla to take on – and this is the crux of the story and then I’ll stop rambling about Heart of Soldier – he then becomes head of security for what was now Morgan Stanely Dean Whitter. In the South Tower. He does it on a couple conditions. The first and foremost of which is that they’ll set security up the way he wants it set up. So he completely changes the security parameters of the building and also drills. Emergency drills. Which were very lackadaisical. And he had people, much to their dismay, up and down sixty flights of stairs every six month. And then he had internal drills as well. So that … there is not a person on the planet who lived through 9/11 in the towers that will not say: if it weren’t for that discipline, that that kicked in, that day… and Rick Rescorla on a bullhorn singing the songs, calming the people down, telling people: you know how to do this, this is a great day to be an American, we’re going to do this like we know it, by the book. Down the stairs. Here we go. Dong-da-dong-da-da. Three thousand people are alive today because of this guy. And of course [he chokes up just a little, just from retelling the story] he died… however else would he die… a man like that… great love story on the side of all this; troubled lives and they find each other late in life… and think they’re going to go on in great glory… and they did have a glorious but short time together. But Rick Rescorla, of course he’s going to go back up. If there is one person screaming on a stair 65 flights up, he’ll be up there. And that’s where he went. And he went back up to get everybody out. Never could trace him. Not anything has ever been found of him. And, you know… [deep breath] …that’s probably the only way he could go.

It’s a great story. It’s a legendary story. The man was just a wonderful human being… and to get into those shoes and working on it as the libretto has been flying and words and forms… and it’s tough to put it in an opera, but I think there will be a wonderful surge of recognition of the decency of humanity and we get to look at him. He’s a kind of William Tell.”

Humbling to play on stage…?

“Oh, absolutely. It’s humbling all around. I met his widow, I met his best friend… the whole story is very emotional… Yes. It’s a great honor, it’s just a wonderful project… First act is done. Second act is about done. Good music. Chris Theofanidis… from Yale days… I’m not sure where he is right now… and I’ve known Francesca Zambello for years. She’s a wonderful producer, such a smart lady, my god. Speaks something like six or seven languages… I worked with her in Paris. I never forget the day when the Paris Opera Chorus, which is about half Russian, and one day, I was carrying on, and she is in French this and in Italian that and English to me… and all of the sudden she turns on her heel to the chorus and just after two days—I had no idea—lays the chorus out in flawless Russian. And I rehearsals changed that day. It was like: ‘No, you need to listen to me, and we’re going to do it my way, and I’m tired of the bitching, and don’t be late, and yadda-yadda… we have a limited amount of time. We’ll do it my way first, and then we can talk. It was fantastic. Everyone just went ‘ooops’, because they now knew that she knew all along what they had been saying. Very, very funny. Remarkable woman. [I make a face, but hide it quick enough.] And I love San Francisco and the house… David Gockley [General Director of the San Francisco Opera] has nurtured more operas in contemporary times than…” The phone rings and we move on to George Crumbs and his 'American Song Book' that Hampson performed at the Library of Congress earlier this year.

Thomas Hampson begins his 2011-12 season at San Francisco Opera, where he will create the role of Rick Rescorla in the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier (seven performances, Sept 10–30).

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