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March 19, 2018

50 years after the My Lai massacre, an opera confronts the past

Jonathan Berger and Harriet Scott Chessman‘s My Lai: A monodrama for tenor, string quartet and Vietnamese instruments was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Listen below.

Kronos performs the work with Rinde Eckert and Vân-Ánh Võ at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Wednesday.

In an instant, a decision is made. The actions that follow may pass without a second thought, or may have consequences that last a lifetime. That moment may even alter history.

My Lai starts from the fateful choices of Army Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson Jr. on March 16, 1968.  As he and his crew – Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn – flew in a helicopter over the Vietnam countryside, they witnessed American soldiers killing Vietnamese villagers – 500 women, children, and the elderly. Exhibiting extraordinary moral courage, they chose to intercede. When they failed to stop the massacre, they resolved to rescue as many civilians as they could and to never be silent about what they saw. Despite a coordinated military cover up that vilified him as a traitor, Thompson helped bring the truth to light. His actions changed the American public’s perception of the war forever.

In Jonathan Berger and Harriet Scott Chessman’s fevered character study of Thompson, it is not his heroism that day that takes center stage, but
the tragedy of how those implicated in war are haunted by the trauma of its violence – regardless of how they acted. His story emerges in fragments as tenor Rinde Eckert, portraying Thompson near the end of his life, reflects on past and present, trapped in a web of fury, sorrow, and yearning. Careening from reflective arias to disoriented recitatives, Eckert’s expressive voice soars above the music played by the Kronos Quartet and Vietnamese multi-instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Võ.

2018 marks 50 years since the My Lai massacre.

    Jonathan Berger, composer
    Harriet Scott Chessman, librettist
    Mark DeChiazza, Rinde Eckert, directors/set designers
    Mark DeChiazza, video projections designer
    Brian H. Scott, lighting designer
    Drew Cameron, creative consultant
    Janet Cowperthwaite, producer
    Kronos Performing Arts Association, production management

My Lai (music by Jonathan Berger, libretto by Harriet Scott Chessman) was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert, and Vân-Ánh Võ by the Harris Theater for Music and Dance and the Laura and Ricardo Rosenkranz Artistic Innovation Fund through the Imagine Campaign, the Gerbode-Hewlett Foundations 2013 Music Commissioning Awards initiative, and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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