The Vietnam War is part of the setting of Amelia. The opera’s libretto includes references to the Gulf of Tonkin, Yankee Station, the Delta, and the Haiphong power plant, and Act One Scene Three takes place in an unnamed village in North Vietnam. Amelia and her mother, Amanda, travel there in 1985, after receiving a letter from Huy and Trang, a couple who live in the village and who (in 1966) interacted with Dodge, the missing-in-action father of Amelia and Amanda’s husband. In that scene, the Americans communicate with the Vietnamese through an Interpreter--making it an extremely unusual scene, so far as language in opera and musical text-setting is concerned! (Vietnamese, like most Asian languages, is tonal, meaning part of the meaning of the word is carried by the pitch (or pitches) on which it is vocalized. Coming up in a few weeks on this blog: the pleasures and perils of creating and singing opera in Vietnamese!)
But the opera isn’t really about the Vietnam War, at least not from any political point of view. It’s about the impact that war—-any war-—can have on families, on those left at home. Composer Daron Hagen has pointed out that the same drama probably happened 2,500 years ago, during the Peloponnesian War, and Speight Jenkins, in his Forward to the published libretto of Amelia, refers to the wars in which America is currently involved.
Amelia herself, in the opera, has trouble finding meaning in her father’s death: “Daddy, why did you die? / I needed you more than your squadron did,” she asks in Act Two Scene One. “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,” she sings, quoting Hermann Melville’s 1861 poem “The March into Virginia.”
Yet it may be an oversimplification to say that the opera is anti-war. The climax of the story comes in a moment of magical or mythical realism, when Amelia’s husband Paul finds and sings aloud the last letter written by Amelia’s father, a letter that had been destroyed in Vietnam in 1966. Unlike his daughter, Dodge expresses no regret about his imminent sacrifice:
I am at peace within myself.
I have no fear, but write this for reality’s sake.
If I’m shot down, and should eject,
Please know I will bear whatever lies ahead.
If I am lost, do not despair.
Keep faith, go forward, never forget
How thankful I am, and how happy you have made me.
Like the opera Iphigénie en Tauride, which Amelia creators Speight Jenkins, Stephen Wadsworth, and Tom Lynch recently brought to Seattle (and to the Metropolitan Opera), Amelia is an opera set in a world where war is a terrible reality: an opera about characters who strive to find ways of breaking free of the cycle of violence.
Below, Nuccia Focile and Brett Polegato as Iphigénie and Oreste at Seattle Opera, 2007 (Bill Mohn, photo)