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How Can I Keep from Singing?
Laura Day Giarolo, Director of Learning & Community Engagement
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Original Content9/12/2011

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Despite my ruddy Irish-American complexion and Minnesotan upbringing, standing in front of Guernica at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and seeing that great work in person made me a Spaniard and a Basque. I had read the history and knew of the devastation during the Spanish Civil War, but it wasn't until I was face to face with Picasso's masterpiece and breathed in deeply that I was forced to grapple with the gruesome reality of a war that happened decades before I was born.

Creative expression of one's own story can provide victims of great tragedies an outlet for dealing with their grief and anguish. The resulting art — be it a painting, a poem, a sculpture, a song — provides release for its creator, and enables observers, audience members and participants in a performance the opportunity to relate to the event and its survivors, no matter how far removed in time or space. These works provide a level of detail and uncomfortable intimacy that a more objectively written historical record simply can't capture or convey. It is the responsibility of artists and educators alike to ensure all people have the opportunity to take ownership of their history through art.

Opera companies and many other arts organizations are doing exactly that through a series of performances in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Here is a sample of events and concerts of original works produced by our members this past weekend:

  • From Houston Grand Opera: the world premiere of Pieces of 9/11, Memories from Houston, a song cycle by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer as part of the HGOco Song of Houston project. The work is based on interviews with members of the Houston Fire Department and Texas Task Force One, who traveled to New York to assist with the search and recovery efforts in the days, weeks and months after the attacks.

  • From San Francisco Opera: the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier, a two-act opera by composer Christopher Theofanidis and librettist Donna Di Novelli, which is based on the non-fiction story of Rick Rescorla. Rescorla grew up in England and Rhodesia, fought for the United States in Vietnam, and saved the lives of thousands by evacuating the Morgan Stanley offices in the South Tower that company's director of security. Rescorla died when the tower collapsed as he did one final sweep of the floor to ensure all employees had made it to safety outside.

  • Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is part of a larger group of St. Louis-based organizations to present "An Interfaith Memorial in Music," which was also to be broadcast on local PBS stations. The concert featured soprano Christine Goerke and the service included local religious leaders in the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu faith traditions.

  • American Opera Projects along with several Brooklyn-based arts groups present Martin Hennessy's Ascending Descending, a song cycle for two sopranos with libretto by Janet Kaplan, and featuring Marnie Breckenridge and Emily Langford Johnson. The concert will also feature Hennessy's Echo's Song, a setting of Ben Jonson's poem, which was the composer's personal response to the attacks of September 11. The collaborators also invite attendees to take in "Pieces of Paper — Aspirations of 9/11", a visual art installation in Brooklyn that honors the grassroots efforts of those who responded to the tragic events of that day.
Many artists also find release and relief through the performance of works that have helped generations of souls cope with loss and anguish. This weekend featured concerts of the Requiems of Mozart and Verdi in several states, while classical music stations played Barber's Adagio for Strings and churches turn to hymns of trust and faith, such as that which inspired the title of this essay.

As Houston Grand Opera's Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers put it, "We have a duty as artists to reflect on our world, but how does one respond with meaning on an event so momentous and young as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a day of such universal heartbreak? …No work of art can heal a wound so profound, but we hope… to contribute to easing the pain of remembrance, and to provide a forum to celebrate the small moments of joy which become available when we do so."
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