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In Conversation: Tom Cipullo's "Glory Denied"

In 1973, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history returned home from Vietnam after nine long, torturous years in captivity. But that was only the beginning of his problems.

Floyd James (“Jim”) Thompson married Alyce DeVries in 1953, and for a short time they were happy—until he was drafted in 1956. When President Kennedy ordered the expansion of the Special Forces Unit in 1961, Thompson worked hard to become a Green Beret, and in December 1963, he left for Vietnam.

Only four short months later, he was captured by communist Vietnamese troops after his plane, piloted by Richard L. Whitesides of Stockton, CA, was shot down. Sadly, this was the same day his fourth child (and only son) was born.

Meanwhile, Alyce was left on the army base with four children, no family nearby, and without any way of knowing if her husband was alive or dead. A constant victim of acts of hate as a result of the ever-evolving opinions on the war, Alyce eventually moved out of North Carolina and into a new life with her four children and new partner, Harold.

When Jim returned home, he and Alyce tried to recreate the life they once had together, but it quickly became apparent that they were no longer the happy couple who married twenty years earlier.

Glory Denied, an opera in two acts composed by Tom Cipullo which SFCM will present on April 6 and 8, not only exposes the most heartbreaking and disturbing times of the Thompsons’ lives, but provides the next generation a glimpse into the war that divided a nation.

Much of students’ time is spent learning canonical operatic works such as Carmen, Don Giovanni, and The Marriage of Figaro. This year, seven SFCM voice students have the unique opportunity to explore a piece that has not yet become standard. This opens up a world of possibilities that provides an invaluable experience for a young artist. As part of their study, the students were able to work with the composer and discuss the book on which the opera is based. The following Q&A with Tom Cipullo, SFCM Opera and Musical Theatre Director Jose Maria Condemi, and students Ana Paula Malagon ’18 and Andrew Ross ’18 highlight the dynamic perspectives Glory Denied presents.

There is a lot of information about Alyce and Jim in the book that is not included in the opera. What are some important things we should know about the characters?

Ana Paula Malagon: Alyce had a difficult upbringing. She came from a very unstable family, and when she met Jim, she idealized their relationship. This was a time when having the perfect husband and perfect family was the dream, and I don’t think she ever thought she could have that until she met Jim. She was very young when they got married. They were happy for a short time, and I think she was proud of him when he joined the army, but she didn’t know what it was going to do to their marriage.

Andrew Ross: Jim was very presentational. He wanted everything to be picture-perfect, but [in reality] he had a drinking problem, a terrible relationship with his parents, and no strong emotional foundation. The army gave him purpose and structure.

How does this role compare to other roles you’ve performed?

APM: Fictitious characters like Susanna or Cendrillon are more naïve and comedic. There’s not this painful, dark suffering that you see with Alyce. There’s more meat to this character, and I really enjoy that it’s so human and real. I want to be as honest as possible.

How did you come to choose this opera for SFCM’s 2017-18 season?

Jose Maria Condemi: When planning repertoire for our season, I aim for a healthy balance between the “warhorses” (Mozart, Puccini, etc.) in the original foreign language with contemporary works. Given this is SFCM’s centennial anniversary year, I decided to only schedule operas by 20th- and 21st-century composers in English. As such, Tom Cipullo’s deeply affecting Glory Denied came to mind. I think it is a great opera for our singers to perform, with significant musical and theatrical challenges, which will only enhance the academic component of the project. I was also encouraged and reassured by Tom’s unending generosity during the planning stages. He has been an invaluable source for both faculty and students. Our cast had the privilege of working with Tom in person for two days and we’ve also planned special activities around the piece, including a visit by a Vietnam veteran as well as English diction coachings by Erie Mills, one of the top experts in the country.

Vietnam veteran Jeff Hoe provided the cast vital information about the war and the experience of many veterans after they returned home. One glaring mistake that the military made, he said, was the lack of transitional period for returning prisoners of war (POW). After World War II, POWs traveled home by ship, allowing weeks for them to adjust, but POWs returning from Vietnam traveled by plane. They were bombarded with information sometimes mere hours after their release. Returning soldiers, especially POWs, received very little support. In many cases, including Jim’s, their situation was exacerbated by the lack of military support.

What are some things you learned from Jeff Hoe?

APM: I was really impressed with how eloquently he spoke about his life and how open he was. He was very pragmatic. I couldn’t believe someone could go through [everything he did] and tell us about it so matter-of-factly.

AR: I was interested in observing his actions and the way he carried himself because the war is part of the story, but the opera is really about the characters. He seemed to quickly switch from big, emotive gestures to confined and guarded. He gave me a reference for how I think Jim would have acted.

What was the inspiration for composing this opera?

Tom Cipullo: I had always wanted to write an opera, but I didn’t want to [choose] one of those standard novels that seem to transmit into opera so often. I wanted to come up with some story off the beaten path. One day I was reading the New York Times, and in it was a review of Tom Philpott’s book Glory Denied, and as soon as I saw it, it seemed to have such a resonance. And I think a lot of people would say, “What on earth would make you think this could be the subject for an opera?” But it’s a time that helped shape me and a lot of people of my generation, and our country, and it’s something that stays with you. I was also drawn to stories where no one is all good and no one is all bad. That’s how we are. I wanted to tell all the sides of each person’s story. Music makes everyone human—it helps us understand anyone’s emotions. It’s a wonderful challenge.

Have you met Tom Philpott?

TC: Yes. He’s a great guy. I wrote to him to ask if I could base my opera on his book, and he must have thought I was crazy, but he said, “Sure, give it a try.” He’s been very supportive and he’s come to see it often. He’s amazing. He has this way about him that as you’re talking to him, you feel, ‘this guy’s not going to hurt me.’ He was so gentle in the way he got such deeply felt things from the people he interviewed in the book—almost like confessions. He’s like a priest. And now he’s been dragged into the opera world!

You said that you met Alyce and Jim’s four children when they came to see the opera. What was that like?

TC: It was terrifying. I put their suffering into a theatre, and we all watched it as voyeurs. I was making my work out of their pain. I was very nervous that I wasn’t being true, and that they would hate it. But they didn’t. They thanked me for helping to keep their father’s memory alive and for recognizing the service he gave to the country. They were too modest to say the service they gave to the country. That’s what the opera is about: how families suffer for generations in these situations. It was great to see them. Who has a chance to do that in opera? Afterward, the cast members met and hugged the children. It was very emotional for them.

Do you have a favorite part of the opera?

TC: I like the end of Act I. But it has to have the right momentum that gives it that inexorable feel. And “My Darling Jim.” I also like the final scene very much, but it’s very difficult. As hard as it is to memorize and sing it, it’s much harder to make it work dramatically.

What have you learned from working with Tom Cipullo?

APM: He was more focused on the character than his specific articulations in the score. He really cares about the emotions. He kept asking me, “What are you feeling here?” He was like a psychologist!

AR: The last scene is crazy. Tom has a very specific idea about it in his mind, which raises the bar. Thompson keeps saying, ‘Wake up, make coffee,’ and it’s like a reset button because that’s how he starts his day. So, Tom suggested I use that as my reset button emotionally to keep the scene from escalating too quickly. That was really helpful.

What do you want the audience to remember about the performance?

TC: I want young people to come away knowing something about the time. I want them to feel all the controversy, anger, and sorrow. I want them to look at their parents and grandparents in a new way, and realize how that time helped shape them. It wasn’t always so dramatic. The fights that went on at dinner tables around the country between parents and their children, between fathers and sons was really an amazing thing. Jim Thompson went away in 1964 and came back in 1973. I don’t know if people today realize how much the country changed in those nine years. 1964 was only nineteen years after the end of World War II. At that time, America was the superpower. In 1973, the counterculture was hippies—“Make Love, Not War.” For Jim, it must have been like coming back to Mars. Nobody talked or dressed the same.

What do you think about the title, Glory Denied? Who denied Jim his glory?

TC: In a sense, you could say it was his wife, who wouldn’t allow his name to be released to the press. Maybe it was the whole population. Nobody even wanted to remember Vietnam. They said, “Let’s forget it. This was a mistake.”

Do you think there was ever any hope for Jim and Alyce?

TC: The letter that Alyce wrote, the aria “My Darling Jim,” really jumped out at me. It’s the most important letter in the book. It proves that they had to have something, or at least she gave him the impression there was something. She could have been fooling herself. We do that all the time. My friend David Del Tredici pointed out to me after I wrote the opera that in order for Jim to survive, he had to make it the greatest marriage of all time in his head. He had to idealize it. In order for Alyce to survive, she had to take the opposite thing, the mirror image of it, and turn it into the worst marriage of all time. The truth is probably in the middle somewhere.

In the score, above Younger Alyce’s first line in the opera, you wrote “Idealized”. Is her whole character Jim’s idealized version of her?

TC: Maybe. I wrote that at the time, but I’ve seen the opera a lot of different ways. I want people to make it their own.

Preparing the role of Older Alyce is a very introspective experience because she’s a very unlikable person at first glance, but when you play her, you have to understand her. You could argue that she had legitimate reasons for everything she did.

TC: She had nothing. She had no family. There was a very telling line [in the book] about nobody wanting to see her because they all knew that could happen to their husbands. And you can’t blame them. You wish people could be more noble, but you can understand it.

How do you think American opera is changing?

TC: It sure looks like a Golden Age to me, with all these talented people doing it. And companies are performing these operas. They know opera has to change. It can’t be a museum, or it’s not going to survive. What a wonderful happenstance that there are a whole bunch of terrific composers writing topical subjects, in English, with beautiful vocal lines, and companies want to do them. Now we just have to make sure they do them a second time.

Performances of Glory Denied, directed by Jose Maria Condemi and conducted by Curt Pajer, will take place Friday, April 6 and Sunday, April 8.

Interview conducted by Taylor Haines ’18

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