It’s breathtaking, attending the 2017 BAM Next Wave Festival. Few opera houses have the majestic feel of Brooklyn Academy of Music, and stepping into the Harvey Theater feels like an excavation process.
Instruments look like whale bones, and a gong echoes through the back of the theater. Up on a platform with a white curtain hanging behind him, Rinde Eckert presents in a type of hospital room. There is an IV in the corner, and pills on a side table. He recalls a sequence from My Lai. Like a movie made from madness, it’s as haunting as other Vietnam stories.
Rinde Eckert is playing Army Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr. The video behind him is full of helicopters and shadows. Rice fields in the background, and yellow and green images flying past. Over 500 citizens were taken in 1968. The tragedy was unspeakable until Thompson finally testified before Congress.
Composer Jonathan Berger has created an opera that is incredibly soothing when played by Kronos Quartet and Vietnamese Musician Vân-Áhn Võ. It’s a blissful and dreamy soundscape. Kronos Quartet is David Harrington on violin, John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola, and Sunny Yang on cello. In My Lai, they are precise, as they gesture toward Vân-Áhn Võ. She plays several instruments, dan bau (single-string box zither), dan tranh (16-string board zither), and t’rung (a visually striking helix-shaped xylophone with bamboo rods). The Vietnamese instruments look like chimes; stringed instruments played like a digital sampler. It’s extraordinarily inventive.
With the performance, Vân-Áhn Võ has an extraordinary presence on stage. Though she doesn’t exactly present like a warrior or a dancer, her sense of self is so completely firm. Wearing a spectacular necklace and black long pants, she inhabits a completely different performance space than Rinde Eckert. Eckert never leaves his platform, moving back and forth in slippers on the upper tier. There is an immediacy in the singing, as though he is reaching out to friends. His tone is conversant.
With Direction and Set Design by Mark DeChiazza and Rinde Eckert, My Lai is a type of actor’s paradise. Every moment is perfectly orchestrated. Brian H. Scott was the Lighting Designer of this 85-minute spectacle. Mark DeChiazza also designed the video, which has plenty of black and white silhouettes, fading in from nowhere. Helicopters diving in and out appear menacing.
The libretto by Harriet Scott Chessman deals with a First Landing that includes a Flight and a Descent, a Hovering over a Bunker, and a Third Landing. As Eckert sings of being “caught in it,” there’s a disturbing sense that he is being whipped into a greater drama. Introspective, he gains a greater sense of tragedy in front of him. In the quiet, we get a sense of what remains as his high pitched tones reach into the larger opera house.
My Lai played at BAM’s Harvey Theater from September 27 -30 at 7:30PM.
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