50 Years After The My Lai Massacre, An Opera Confronts The Past

Mar 21, 2018
Originally published on April 3, 2018 8:49 am

One of the most horrible events of the Vietnam War took place 50 years ago this week. The story of Hugh Thompson, Jr., the American soldier who tried to stop the My Lai Massacre, has been made into an opera being performed all over the country, most recently at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA — the same location composer Jonathan Berger gathered instrumentalist Van-Anh Vanessa Vo and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington to discuss the collaboration in the first place.

"I was 13, 14 years old when it happened," Berger says of the massacre. "A riveting moment. For me, it was sort of my political awakening."

Later, Berger would learn of U.S. Army pilot Hugh Thompson, Jr., who witnessed American soldiers on a bloody rampage, raping and killing Vietnamese civilians that day.

"We came across a ditch. It had bodies in it," Thompson remembered in the 1989 documentary Four Hours In My Lai. "A lot of them. Women. Kids. Old men."

Thompson tried to stop the massacre. He landed his helicopter repeatedly to help Vietnamese civilians. At one point, he flew it down between fleeing villagers and advancing American soldiers and ordered his crew to shoot the Americans if they kept slaughtering innocent people.

Once he got back to base, Thompson reported the massacre, but the Army tried to cover it up. His fellow soldiers shunned him and accused him of being on the wrong side. Thompson received death threats. After Thompson testified about My Lai in 1969, a member of Congress threatened to have him court-martialed. But Thompson never doubted his choices.

Thompson is the only character in the chamber opera My Lai. He's 67 years old, in hospice and at the end of his life, reliving his attempt to end the massacre.

"His character just shines. He was extraordinary," says librettist Harriet Scott Chessman.

"People don't usually take stands," Harrington says. "They're concerned about what other people think, or the polls or something like that. But on that day in My Lai, Hugh Thompson just reacted to injustice."

Berger had already explored Thompson's story in a piano concerto when he teamed up with Kronos Quartet and Van-Anh Vanessa Vo, a master of traditional Vietnamese instruments who was born in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended. "I still see the consequences," Vo says.

As a child in Hanoi, Vietnam, Vo learned about the My Lai Massacre in school and uses instruments made out of old artillery shells in the opera, which she described as a memorial to the murdered civilians as well as Thompson and his crew.

In one moment in the opera, Thompson, who suffered after the war from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, can't stop dwelling on the ditch where he saw all the bodies. It becomes an elegiac duet between singer Rinde Eckhert and Vo, who plays a Vietnamese stringed instrument called a đàn bâù.

"The đàn bâù is like another crying voice," Vo says. "When I play that, I still feel the pain. And then when the quartet comes in, it's just like we are three intertwined with each other, and then we all cry at that moment."

Librettist Harriet Scott says it's hard not to consider the relevance of Thompson's story when the United States is still at war and when the abuse of people perceived as enemies is back in the headlines.

"I can't say this country, as a country, really learned very much from all of this," Scott says.

Back in 1989, Hugh Thompson, Jr. was given a medal by the military for his bravery at My Lai. He told NPR in 1998 how it felt to have waited so long to be recognized.

"I'm not bitter. I'm confused," he said. "I did a damn good job in the service."

Before he died in 2006, Thompson counseled veterans and gave numerous speeches about the ethics of combat and the vital importance of good leadership in preventing tragedies like My Lai. Chessman says when you think about Thompson landing his helicopter over and over to protect people who could not protect themselves, it raises a moral question as valid now as it was in 1968.

"Do we hover?" she asks. "Or do we dive down?"

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of the most horrifying events in a terrible war, the My Lai Massacre, occurred 50 years ago yesterday in Vietnam. The story never would have gotten out had it not been for a U.S. soldier who stood up against his own troops and reported their actions. He's become the subject of an opera that's being performed all over the country. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. vividly remembered in a 1989 documentary the day he and his crew were out doing reconnaissance and witnessed something awful.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DOCUMENTARY)

HUGH THOMPSON JR.: During flying around, we came across a ditch. It had bodies in it. A lot of women, kids, old men.

ULABY: Soon, Thompson realized American soldiers were on a bloody rampage, raping and killing Vietnamese civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA,"MY LAI")

RINDE ECKERT: (As Hugh Thompson, singing) I'm going to stop this madness.

ULABY: Hugh Thompson is the only character in the chamber opera, "My Lai." It takes place entirely in his head. Thompson's at the end of his life, remembering how he tried to stop the massacre. He landed his helicopter repeatedly to help civilians. At one point, he flew it down between fleeing villagers and advancing American soldiers. He ordered his crew to shoot the Americans if they kept slaughtering innocent people.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MY LAI")

ECKERT: (As Hugh Thompson, singing) Men, pick up your guns, take aim.

ULABY: Thompson reported the massacre when he got back to base, but the Army tried to cover it up. Thompson's fellow soldiers accused him of being on the wrong side. They shunned him. He received death threats. After Thompson testified about My Lai in 1969, a member of Congress threatened to have him court martialed. But Thompson never doubted his choices, says librettist Harriet Scott Chessman.

HARRIET SCOTT CHESSMAN: His character just shines. He was extraordinary.

ULABY: But Chessman says it wasn't easy to write a character so single-mindedly determined to intervene.

CHESSMAN: He didn't have to go back down. So I had to try to understand how in God's name he went back down.

ULABY: Taking on an opera about a notorious American war crime and the guy who tried to stop it felt necessary to Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington.

DAVID HARRINGTON: People don't usually take stands. They are concerned about what other people think or the percentages or the polls or something like that. But on that day in My Lai, Hugh Thompson just reacted to injustice.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MY LAI")

ECKERT: (As Hugh Thompson, singing) What do I do? What would you do?

ULABY: Very few people had heard of Hugh Thompson when Americans at home became aware of the massacre through news reports and gruesome photographs, the sort we rarely see from wars today. It was a formative moment for composer Jonathan Berger.

JONATHAN BERGER: I was 13, 14 years old when it happened. Riveting moment for me. It was sort of my political awakening.

ULABY: Berger had already explored Thompson's story in a piano concerto when he teamed up with Kronos Quartet and a well-known Vietnamese musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MY LAI")

ULABY: Von Anh Vo (ph) was born the year the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

VON ANH VO: I still see the consequences.

ULABY: Vo is a master of traditional Vietnamese instruments. As a child in Hanoi, she learned about the My Lai massacre in school. This music is a memorial, she says, to the murdered civilians and to Thompson and his crew.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MY LAI")

ECKERT: (As Hugh Thompson, singing unintelligibly).

ULABY: There's a moment in the opera when Thompson, who suffered after the war from PTSD, can't stop dwelling on the ditch where he saw all the bodies. It becomes the duet between singer Rinde Eckert and Vo playing a Vietnamese stringed instrument called a Dan Bau.

VO: So the Dan Bau like another crying voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MY LAI")

ECKERT: As Hugh Thompson, singing) The ditch.

VO: Each time when I play that I still feel the pain. And then when the quartet came in, it's just like we are three intertwined with each other. And then it's like we all cry at that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MY LAI")

CHESSMAN: I can't say that this country as a country really learned very much from all of this.

ULABY: Librettist Harriet Scott Chessman says it's hard not to consider the relevance of Hugh Thompson's story when the United States is still at war and when the abuse of people perceived as enemies is back in the headlines. Thirty years after My Lai, Hugh Thompson was given a medal by the military for his bravery there. And he told NPR how it felt to have waited so long to be recognized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

THOMPSON JR.: I'm not bitter. I'm confused. I did a damn good job in the service.

ULABY: Before he died, Thompson counseled veterans and gave numerous speeches, including at West Point, about the ethics of combat. Harriet Scott Chessman says when you think about Thompson landing his helicopter again and again to protect people who could not protect themselves, it raises a question for all of us.

CHESSMAN: Do we hover, or do we dive down?

ULABY: A moral metaphor for 1968 and 2018. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.