It’s a painfully depressing (and true) story: a prisoner of war held in Vietnam for nine years, longer than any other American POW in history. Five years in solitary. Torture and interrogations. When he’s finally released, he comes home to a country that’s changed a lot in nine years. Not to mention that his wife has been living with another man and has told their four kids that their father is dead.
The story of Colonel F. James Thompson is compiled in Tom Philpott’s book, Glory Denied, which provides the source material for the opera libretto.
Some commenter on Parterre snarked that this is an opera that will be forgotten in six months. But I disagree.
If the opera were about, say, the current war in Afghanistan, and if it didn’t have anything universal to say about war or people’s conduct in war, I might agree with the criticism. But that’s not the case here. The Vietnam War ended, and Jim Thompson was freed, over 35 years ago. Philpott’s book was published nine years ago. Cipullo’s opera premiered three years ago. And here we are, with another successful production just completed.
There are always worthwhile stories to tell, and Thompson’s is one of those.
That’s because the story is not just about Thompson, and is not just about war. It is about human suffering: through imprisonment and abandonment, at the hands of enemies and of loved ones. There is no reason for this opera to become irrelevant. In fact, because of its compact size (a cast of four with a small chamber orchestra) and minimal staging requirements, it may find a niche in productions by schools and companies with limited resources.
A new book about another POW just came out. It’s a World War II story, and the book sounds captivating. Glory Denied is a Vietnam War story, and it’s still worth telling. Every generation and locale has its particular character, but that’s often just backdrop. There are still new stories to be told from every century, from every part of the globe. And I, for one, will be glad to hear them.