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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Shining Light on My Lai

Photo: Zoran Orlic
By Christian Barclay

On March 16, 1968, US Army pilot Hugh Thompson and his crew were flying on a reconnaissance mission over the South Vietnamese village of My Lai when he spotted the bodies of men, women, and children strewn across the fields. He nosed his helicopter down and quickly realized what was taking place: American soldiers were killing innocent villagers at will––it was a massacre.

Over the course of a few frantic hours, Thompson tried to halt the carnage. He landed his helicopter between the Americans and the villagers, ordering his crew to shoot their fellow soldiers if they attacked the civilians. He called in support from other air units and together they evacuated a small group of villagers, including a young boy Thompson pulled from an irrigation ditch. Official counts vary, but between 350 and 500 Vietnamese died in My Lai that day.

Though Thompson issued a damning report of the incident to his superiors, the mission was largely deemed a success and all contradictory reports were suppressed. In 1970, after investigative reporter Seymour Hersh brought My Lai to light, Thompson testified before Congress against those responsible. He was publicly vilified as a turncoat and a traitor, a condemnation that resulted in decades of death threats, ostracism, and personal struggle. Of the 14 officers who were eventually charged, all but one were acquitted.

Vân-Ánh VõHe. Photo: Zoran Orlic
“The revelation of the inhumane brutality and immorality of the My Lai massacre constituted my political awakening” says Jonathan Berger, composer of the opera My Lai, at the BAM Harvey Theater from Sep 27 to 30. “I became deeply involved in the anti-war movement, and my musical path was largely an outgrowth of that outrage.” When Berger learned of Thompson’s story, more than 20 years ago, he felt compelled to portray it in music. With a libretto by Harriet Chessman, My Lai features tenor Rinde Eckert as Thompson, along with Kronos Quartet and Vietnamese musician Vân-Ánh VõHe. The entire opera is set in a hospital room in which Thompson is in hospice care. The story of the massacre emerges as he reflects upon his life, piecing the events together.

David Harrington, of Kronos Quartet, had a similarly personal connection to Thompson’s story. “It resonated so strongly for me, and it’s partly because I was inspired to start Kronos in 1973 because I’d heard Black Angels by George Crumb. He wrote it in 1970, as he says in the score, ‘in the time of war.’ When I heard that piece, it felt like I’d found my song.” In My Lai, Harrington saw an opportunity to create a “moral sonic counterbalance” to the tragedy, a musical reckoning similar to Crumb’s electric composition.

While My Lai is not an attempt to recreate the atrocities of that day, Harrington hopes that Thompson’s moral conflict resonates with the audience: “My Lai allows the listener to reflect upon the horror of that day through the eyes and memory of someone whose bravery, presence of mind, and moral courage compelled action in the face of evil.”

My Lai comes to the BAM Harvey Theater Sep 27—30, and great tickets are still available.

Christian Barclay is a publicist at BAM.

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