The Forgotten Life of a Hero – Glory Denied

“A lot of people say we lost the war. That isn’t true. We went there with a specific goal, to assist a free country remain free, to bring South Vietnamese up to a position where they could handle the job themselves. We accomplished that mission, honorably and well, and didn’t come back until we had done our job.” – Major Floyd “Jim” Thompson (longest held POW in American history)

No bitter sentiment against the government. No antiwar propaganda. No complaints about life lost. Despite intense struggle, Major Jim Thompson remained true to the first love of his life: being an American soldier. Shockingly, Jim was soon to find out that the most difficult aspect of being the longest held prisoner of war wasn’t the five years of solitary isolation, nine years of brutal torture or nearly a decade of being held against your will – it was coming home.

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Echoes across time: Younger Thompson (David Blalock) and older Thompson (Michael Mayes) read a letter from their wife Alyce decades apart. Photo courtesy: Ellen Appel

The central driving force of the book, Glory Denied by Tom Philpott, is that of Thompson’s persistence through his suffering in Vietnam and the effects his absence had on his wife back home. The opera of the same name, by Tom Cipullo, chooses to embrace something a bit different. It’s the before and after; the internal/parallel struggles between Thompson and his wife with a focus on Thompson’s acclimation home from Vietnam. Jim came back to a nation that was opposed to the action taken in Vietnam; radicals, civilians and (most frustratingly) politicians alike. What is more, his wife chose to forget about him. Rather quickly after his capture, she found comfort in the arms of another man to offset immense loneliness and give a more normal life to Jim’s and her four children. After a few years and expecting the worst, she refused his name to be recognized nationally as a missing person. She feared digging up bad memories and hurting her family. Earnestly wanting to move on, she never even told Jim Jr. about his real dad. Our war hero, Thompson, came home after over nine years of unimaginable tribulation through unfortunate wartime inevitability. He came home to an estranged country that was against him, a family that had forgotten him and a military that had been told to hide his honor. It is in both Jim’s acclimation and in Alyce’s conviction of her own actions that the opera finds its drive.

The 170 seat, intimate space of the McDavid Theatre (across the street from the great Bass Hall) served as a pleasing outlet for the opera as it succeeded in highlighting the struggle of two emotionally distraught characters. Capturing such raw and tumultuous emotion should have proved much more difficult outside of the chamber setting. The set was minimal, each of the four characters equipped with a mobile chair and a wooden chest filled with remnants of the past. A good choice as much attention was drawn to the character with this type of set.

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Younger Thompson (David Blalock) experiences the pain of his torture in a Vietnamese POW camp, while Older Thompson (Michael Mayes) recollects the agonizing experience years later. Photo courtesy: Ellen Appel

Under the baton of up-and-coming conductor, Tyson Deaton, the difficult score was handled with professionalism and polish. The chamber orchestra, which was narrowly aligned along the back wall of the stage, seemed comfortable and capable under the young maestro’s baton; no easy feat even under some of the most weathered of hands.

The fireworks of the show came from the cannon roars of baritone Michael Mayes. Fearless and gutsy, he attacked many a frustrated Jim Thompson line with a gusto and bellow that would make a pro football player weak-kneed. Indeed, their are few baritones in the country that’d be willing to lay it all out on the line as he did; taking unwritten risks and using many different aspects of the human sound to convey Old Jim’s struggle. What was perhaps most impressive was to hear such supported grind of the cords during the height of Old Jim’s frustration within the new America in “Turn on, tune in, drop in, drop out” (a technique that would make most go hoarse for a couple of days) and then two minutes later giving a deceptively difficult, yet gorgeously carried pianissimo “home” ringing purely at the top of his range! This is such a crucial moment in the story as Old Jim reveals a much anticipated peace and finds solace within the walls of his ever-reliable church.  Mayes nails this. He not only possessed the vocal agility to sing Thompson, but he perhaps created a Thompson very few could replicate.

The most all around performer was Caroline Worra as Old Alyce. All of the colors of the emotional spectrum seemed to radiate from her facial expressions. This role has got some serious turbulence – Old Alyce is one tortured individual! Worra’s brassy yet bright sound lusciously wove the torment she felt with the constant reminiscence of her young life.

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Older and Younger Alyce (L-R; Caroline Worra and Sydney Mancasola) Photo courtesy: Ellen Appel

Young Alyce, played by soprano Sydney Mancasola, had a difficult task as she was playing Jim’s “idealized vision” of Alyce during his captivity. Therefore, her blank eyes and dutiful yet shallow smile was most likely that of Jim’s expectation of the perfect housewife (ie. a director’s decision) rather than any lack of artistic resource on Mancasola’s part. Her recent win in the Metropolitan Opera Competition would certainly suggest the former. That being said, her character seemed a bit restrained and, perhaps, that was the point. Mancasola shows a significant amount of potential with her sweet and pure soprano.

Young tenor David Blalock has a firm and focused sound. He depicted Young Jim with the dramatic strength needed for endured physical torment and the vocal sweetness necessary for the development of Young Jim’s spiritual journey during the ordeal. Blalock seemed to have a clear grasp of the space as he negotiated his instrument in a smart and efficient manner.

The recollection of a life forgotten is no easy task to stage. The only way the characters were able to weave past and present was through the exchange of saved letters; recalling memories of brief moments. The moments in this story served as both life-saving and life-wounding. The biggest tragedy wasn’t a decade of life stolen; wasn’t the acclimation into a society who had turned there backs on their heroes; or even selfish acts of young love; the tragedy was cleverly depicted in the opera as the aimless, lackadaisical and neglectful fall to the ground each letter took after it was read – the buried and forgotten life of a hero.

Glory Denied at the Fort Worth Opera festival is a must see!