‘Heart of a Soldier’ Opera Chronicles Heroism, Love Amid Tragedy of 9/11

Rick Rescorla saved lives during the Vietnam War, and again on 9/11, but he lost his life as a result. His story, told in the book "Heart of a Soldier" by James Stewart, has been recast as an opera in San Francisco. Spencer Michels reports.

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    Next: a tale of heroism and love amid the tragedy of 9/11.

    It comes in the form of a new opera based on one person's true story.

    NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has this look.


    From the orchestra pit at the San Francisco Opera, the strains of new music to tell the story of a 9/11 hero waft through the hall during a rehearsal.

    The opera is "Heart of a Soldier." And it tells of the life and death of Rick Rescorla, an amazing soldier who saved thousands of lives in Vietnam four decades ago and in New York back in 2001. The idea for the opera came from Francesca Zambello, who is now directing the new work.

    FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO, Director, "Heart of a Soldier": When we look back at the works of Beethoven and Mozart and Verdi and Wagner, so many themes in their works were about heroism and bravery and valor and courage. And that was what at the core of this story. And I was inspired by that.


    The story and the opera end with the attack on the World Trade Center, where Rescorla was in charge of security for Morgan Stanley.

    When the first tower was attacked, he calmed 2,700 employees, kept them orderly, and led them down more than 50 flights of stairs to safety, singing as he went. But he wanted to be sure no one was left behind, so he went back into the building just before the second plane hit the South Tower. He was never heard from again.

    James Stewart wrote about those events first for "The New Yorker" and then in a book, "Heart of a Soldier," which inspired the opera. Stewart sees Rescorla's decision to reenter the building as almost inevitable.

    JAMES STEWART, Author, "Heart of a Soldier": It's amazing to me that, in that moment, you see like the culmination of everything that he had lived for, experienced and believed in. He could have emerged a hero. He would have been hailed from one end of the country to the other. And he didn't do that. He went back up and put himself in danger.

    Given the code that he lived by, the heart of a soldier, which was his title for the book that he never wrote, he had no choice. Duty came before anything else. And duty to one's fellow man takes precedence over all other values.


    Susan Rescorla is Rick's widow. She was home in New Jersey while he was at his World Trade Center office when she learned of the attack on the first tower. She tried to get him on the phone, but could only reach an assistant.

    SUSAN RESCORLA, Widow of Rick Rescorla: Shortly after I hung up with her that morning, Rick called on his cell phone. And he was a man of very — a very calming man. He was — if he was saying something in a profound way, you know, you were going to listen very carefully to what he was saying. And he was saying: "Stop crying. I have to get everyone out. And if something should happen to me, I want you to know that you made my life."

    You know, I say, "Well, you made my life."

    And then we — he hung up. And that was the last phone call. And so I think to myself over these years, isn't it wonderful that he said those words to me that I took with me on this journey?


    For Zambello, opera was the perfect medium to tell the story.


    I think opera is one the best ways to talk about these kind of big emotional stories. That's what opera does best, I think, is focus on the individual to tell the big issues, to tell — to use the private to tell the public.


    Stewart's tale and the opera are only partly about that day 10 years ago. Mostly, they detail Rescorla's life of adventure, beginning as a youth in Cornwall, England, surrounded by American troops preparing to invade France in World War II.

    Then, as a hard-drinking young man, he fought in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, with the British military police, and gloried in his killing a lion that was threatening native villages. After Rhodesia, Rescorla moved to America, became a citizen and joined the U.S. Army, so he could fight in Vietnam.

    His record there was astounding, says Stewart.


    War became not so much about killing the enemy, but about protecting your fellow man. And that is a theme that became more and more intense throughout Rick's life and I think helps explain his final actions on September 11.


    He actually rescued a lot of people in Vietnam that he didn't have to rescue.


    No, he didn't. And, in fact, you know, in one of the more amazing and exciting sequences of the story, he commandeered some helicopters to fly in and rescue his best friend, who was pinned down by fire.


    On his return, Stewart says, Rescorla settled into a more conventional, not-so-heroic life, got a job at the World Trade Center, got divorced.

    On a jog one day, he met divorcee Susan Greer. And, long story short, they very quickly fell in love, the kind of love operas are written about.


    I think the fact that love binds the story together is what allows us to encompass so many events. What I think is so powerful is Rick's ability to fall in love with Susan, Susan Greer, who becomes Susan Rescorla. They meet in their 50s, and they have an incredibly powerful love story.

    Isn't it great in music to have this beautiful second-chance romance?


    Susan Rescorla has had no reservations about having her love story and her husband's deep friendships told in print and now in an opera.


    There's a love story of a man who gave up, sacrificed his life to save others. He was the kind of soldier where no one got left — no one was left behind. You don't leave a man behind.

    I can just imagine what it was like in that building with the smoke and everything else. And I don't think that that was on his mind, that: I'm going to not — I'm going to perish in this.

    I think his — he just needed to do what he had to do.


    Putting such emotion on stage and into music was a challenge for the composer, the American Christopher Theofanidis.

    CHRISTOPHER THEOFANIDIS, Composer, "Heart of a Soldier": Well, the difficult thing is to find a way, because it spans so much time, from World War II through Vietnam, to the '70s, the '80s, and finally up to September 11, how to kind of synthesize those musical idioms into my own kind of language, which is basically a romantic, dramatic, tonal language.

    And so what you hear throughout is there are — there are inferences of style from those different periods that come out.


    Theofanidis and librettist Donna DiNovelli had to deal with an issue many artists have grappled with when it comes to the tragedy of 9/11: How do you portray an event people remember clearly and tell the story without overwhelming the audience with grief?


    Well, the problem with September 11 as a story for the stage is that everybody has their own very direct connection with that event. And, you know, the way we decided to deal with that is that, basically, tried to personalize the opera through what we knew and what we remembered and what we thought was real.


    But, in some ways, the fact that the audience knows the story and the characters is a plus for "Heart of a Soldier," says the opera's director. And that makes it not so different from classic operas from other eras.


    When Mozart wrote "The Marriage of Figaro," his audience knew those characters. They were his characters. When Beethoven wrote "Fidelio," his audience knew those characters, the same way that now, when Chris Theofanidis and Donna DiNovelli have written this opera, we know these characters. We know 9/11. It's part of our world.


    The opera runs in San Francisco through September 30. And its creators are hoping that, because of its universal themes, it will have a life beyond the 10th anniversary of 9/11.