Most often, I come away from an opera with a remnant of an aria flitting around my inner ear, and an uplifting skip in my gait. Rarely do I look back on a gut-level, visceral experience -- where I've been riveted, moved, and finally provoked to consider the unrelenting toll of war and captivity, betrayal, the double-edged sword of forgiveness, and the ultimate challenge of rebuilding a shattered life. 

But it's precisely that meaningful and dark collage of feelings that coalesced in me at the conclusion of the Fort Worth Opera Festival's performance of Glory Denied. With its "based on a true story" imprimatur, Glory Denied, (music and libretto by Tom Cipullo) is inspired by the agonizing Vietnam War experiences of Colonel Floyd James (Jim) Thompson, whose name is engraved in contemporary military history for being America's longest held P.O.W. Over nine-years, Thompson endured unspeakable suffering, from failed escape attempts, physical torture, to the more invisible, psychological toll of prolonged loneliness and that agonizing feeling that everyone had forgotten him. When he is finally released, the euphoria of his new freedom is tempered by how drastically the world has changed, and the challenge of making his place in such a foreign world.

Fort Worth Opera's staging of Thompson's story is suitably stark, with the captive, "young Thompson" (David Blalock) sharing one-half of the stage with his post-captivity "older Thompson" self (Michael Mayes). The other half of the stage also plays with biographical time as it is home to "young Alyce" (Sydney Mancasola) or Thompson's wife at the time of his Vietnam service, and, a decade older Alyce (Caroline Worra), reduced to gazing nostalgically at letters and other fragments of a happier time, but who is now trying to cope with the stranger that is her freed, war-addled spouse.

Set in the intimate, semi-in-the-round confines of McDavid Studio, the opera permits each audience member to witness at close range time skipping from young Thompson's desultory jail cell (the opera's nimble, 12-piece chamber orchestra provides the slap of a torturer's whip across his back), to young Alyce, whose relatively upbeat mood is conveyed by her soaring voice and the sunniness of her robin's egg-blue dress. Then the spotlight lands on the "older Thompson," in a frumpy yellow sweater, trying to comprehend the '70s America he's re-entered. Finally, the agile light lands on the "older Alyce," reduced to ripping off what looks to be days in a calendar, like a wound's scabs, as she marks time spent wondering if her husband will ever come home.

When Thompson finally does return, to a hero's welcome, it sets up the opera's high point, a bravura solo by  Mayes who, in a passage echoing Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire, and R.E.M.'s It's the End of the World, reels off a vast litany of all the totems of the early 70's (mini-skirts and Roe v. Wade, Patty Hearst and leisure suits, to Stonewall, Playboy, and Richard Nixon) most of them punctuated by the era's great counter-cultural motto:  "Turn on, tune in, drop out."

By the end of the opera, the audience is left with the hypnotic use of projected black and white scrap-book pictures of the real Jim Thompson, on the battlefield, and reunited with his family. This montage precedes the opera's ultimate scene of a near-broken Thompson, all but flailing about the stage, as he blurts out the dilemma of everyday existence ultimately facing us all: "What to do today?" followed by his feeble solution: "One day at a time." 

Glory Denied delivers powerfully on its title as the light slowly fades on a crumpled Thompson, one of the American military's great war heros, for whom life after wartime may be his most daunting battle. 

Details: Glory Denied plays May 11 at McDavid Studio, 301 East 5th Street, Fort Worth. Sung in English. As it runs about 90 minutes, there is no intermission.

Fort worth opera glory denied


Echoes across time: Younger Thompson (David Blalock) and older Thompson (Michael Mayes) read a letter from their wife Alyce decades apart. Photo courtesy: Ellen Appel