Jonathan Berger: Mỹ Lai

Rinde Eckert / Van-Anh Vanessa Vo / Kronos Quartet

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Jonathan Berger: Mỹ Lai Review

by James Manheim

The Mỹ Lai massacre during the Vietnam War (in March of 1968) may not be remembered by younger listeners, but this operatic monodrama by composer Jonathan Berger has garnered performances in multiple places and may do its part to commemorate the murder of 500 innocent villagers by American soldiers. Berger tells the story through the memories of a single individual, helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who saw what was happening, tried to intervene, and later worked tirelessly to bring the massacre to public view. The episode became a key turning point in American public attitudes toward the war. Berger's opera takes place as Thompson is on his deathbed, remembering the massacre and his actions at the time; a quiz show playing on television in his room is heard from time to time. Berger deploys musical elements, setting Harriet Scott Chessman's libretto in an extraordinarily powerful way. The opera begins with the sound of Vietnamese traditional instruments, played by Van-Anh Vanessa Vo. The listener also hears J.B. Lenoir's "Vietnam Blues," and Thompson's thoughts and recollections are woven together by music for string quartet, here played by the venerable Kronos Quartet. Everything comes together here. Chessman tells the story through short units of text that transmit fully through music, and Rinde Eckert, a composer himself, is compelling as Thompson. Most powerful of all is Berger's music, which has a remarkable urgency as if the composer were trying to recall these horrible events to the American consciousness. A superb operatic release that, one hopes, will bring further performances of the work.

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