The massacre of over 500 innocent civilians by American soldiers in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968 was one of the darkest moments of the Vietnam War—one that traumatized the nation and swayed the course of history. The events of that day may well have gone unnoticed save for the actions of a young army helicopter pilot who, by happenstance, witnessed the killing in the course of a routine reconnaissance flight. Appalled by what he saw, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson attempted to intercede. Aghast at his inability to stop the slaughter, in a moment of enormous passion, Thompson threatened to open fire on his own troops. Failing to stop the carnage, he pulled a wounded child from its dead mother’s grasp and flew him to safety. Then he reported the massacre. Thompson’s refusal to remain silent about the massacre forced the military to conduct an inquiry and trial that shook the national conscience, and left Thompson vilified as a disloyal outcast for much of his life. Among the generation that came of age during the 1960’s were four artists—David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet, composer Jonathan Berger, novelist Harriet Scott Chessman, and singer Rinde Eckert—on whose lives the Vietnam War and its controversy left an indelible mark. Out of this concern they created a new music opera, with musician Van-Anh Vanessa Vo, that explores the tragedy of My Lai through the perspective of Thompson’s naïve, heroically idealistic, ethical decision to act, and its consequences. The creativity of this artistic collaboration brings a whole new dimension of understanding of the Vietnam War and of Hugh Thompson that one cannot get from a traditional historical documentary. The intensity of the libretto, the power of the unique music, the focus of a haiku encapsulation of a specific story captures the essence of the tragedy of that war. It is an emotional echo for those who lived through it and a deeply moving experience for younger generations.
"My Lai, the opera, has a richly evocative score by Berger which alternates between bursts of dense, frenzied activity and slow, hymn-like harmonies of aching sweetness. The story portrays Thompson in his final days, dying of cancer and desperately trying to make some sense of the events of 40 years earlier. Tenor Rinde Eckert makes Thompson a vivid and poignant character. Each episode is itself neatly framed, with Thompson’s present-day reminiscences fading into the events of 1968. In between are taped snippets of interrogation, in which Thompson’s shameful treatment at the hands of congressional investigators is transformed into a TV game show. The music, written for the Kronos Quartet and the Vietnamese instrumental virtuoso Van-Anh Vo, underscores the drama with unerring clarity. The combined effect is hauntingly beautiful.”
- Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle music critic