Strange Music

The My Lai Massacre Inspires an Opera

One of the most horrific episodes of the Vietnam War is being made into a government-funded opera. Expect intensity, though not explicit gore.

Ronald L. Haeberle

This year, the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded grants to fund a musical production about the life of Marilyn Monroe, a new staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd—and an opera based on the My Lai massacre of 1968.

The horrific episode of the Vietnam War, in which American soldiers subjected hundreds of unarmed civilians (including infants and young girls) to murder, mutilation, and rape, is being brought to musical life by the celebrated San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet and several collaborators. The quartet won $80,000 to perform the two-hour show.

According to Jonathan Berger, a Stanford professor and the “My Lai” composer, the story will be told through the recollections of the late Hugh Thompson, Jr., the Army helicopter pilot who intervened during the massacre in order to save innocent civilians.

“He was an incredibly brave man, and I had the honor of having spoken to him just before he got the [Soldier’s Medal in 1998],” Berger told The Daily Beast. “All the way through, he didn’t see himself as a great hero. In a way, he felt that he failed in not completely succeeding in stopping the killing…He was the epitome of ethics in the face of immorality.”

In “My Lai,” Thompson (who died of cancer in 2006) will be living his last days in a cancer ward, reflecting on the infamous slaughter and piecing the day’s events together.

Berger is working with librettist Harriet Chessman, and the two have been going back and forth on the score for the past six months. Singer Rinde Eckert will play Thompson, and the quartet will be joined by Vân Ánh Võ, who will play traditional Vietnamese percussive instruments.

The composition is still a work in progress; the show is slated to premiere at Stanford University in October, before moving on to the Harris Theater in Chicago and a subsequent tour. Berger provided The Daily Beast with the two opening pages of Chessman’s libretto. Check out the document, which includes Berger’s notes, below:

“I’ve been toying with the idea [of composing something on the massacre] for many years now,” Berger said. In 2001, he wrote a concerto dedicated to Thompson. Here’s a recording, with Sasha Toperich on piano:

The creative team behind the new My Lai project is working out the details for set design. But don’t expect the evocative performance to include graphic images on-stage.

“There will be flashbacks to that day, but I think it will be a reasonably abstract performance,” Berger said. “We’re not going to have war scenes set out on the stage…No blood and gore.”