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Classical 101

New recording tells the story of the My Lai massacre

The Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert and Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ perform Mỹ Lai by Jonathan Berger and Harriet Scott Chessman
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Clarity Films
The Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert and Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ perform Mỹ Lai by Jonathan Berger and Harriet Scott Chessman

It is one of the Vietnam War’s most notorious episodes. Now a new recording again brings awareness to the My Lai Massacre and the U.S. Army officer who tried to bring it to a halt.

Mỹ Lai (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) features the 2015 monodrama of the same title by composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Harriet Scott Chessman performed by the Kronos Quartet, vocalist Rinde Eckert and Vietnamese multi-instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ.

The My Lai Massacre has haunted Berger since his teen years. He was 14 when, in 1969, freelance journalist Seymour Hersch broke the story of the massacre and its now well-documented cover-up by the U.S. military.

“I remember it vividly,” said Berger, a professor of music at Stanford University. “It was a watershed moment in terms of perception of our country. My Lai was really sort of my political awakening, so to speak, so it’s always been sort of central in my political conscience.”

On the morning of March 16, 1968, U.S. Army Major Hugh Thompson, 24, was piloting a helicopter over the South Vietnamese village of Sơn Mỹ in support of an Army search-and-destroy mission for the Viet Cong. Thompson saw U.S. Army soldiers firing on Vietnamese civilians and, without military authorization, landed the helicopter three times to try to block the ground soldiers from continuing the violence.

As many as 504 civilians, including women, children, infants and elderly men, were killed in the massacre.

Later, some U.S. government officials shunned Thompson and the two men of his crew, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, as traitors. In 1998 all three were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for intervening in the massacre. Thompson died in 2006 and was buried with full military honors.

Berger and Chessman’s Mỹ Lai is an imaginary exploration of Thompson’s emotional landscape as he lay in a hospital dying of cancer and still haunted by the massacre.

“The focus of the piece is on this impossible situation that a very young man and his even younger crew were put in, witnessing this horror going on and making the spontaneous decision to do everything they could to stop it,” Berger said.

Haunted by flashbacks of the massacre, Thompson tries to bring his attention back to the present by watching a game show on the TV in his hospital room. In a surreal twist, Thompson finds himself a contestant on the game show, whose emcee calls on Thompson to defend himself for acting against his fellow soldiers.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Chessman, whose novel The Beauty of Ordinary Things deals with the struggles of a Vietnam veteran, says the trauma which torments Thompson in the opera is the dramatic engine of Mỹ Lai.

“I was 17 in 1968, and although I didn’t have any close friends who went to Vietnam to fight, it was just everywhere. You’d turn on the TV or on the radio – it was so much about the Vietnam War. But I have always been very, very interested in trauma and the lingering effects of trauma, and the ways in which the domes of our minds can hold music, phrases, emotion over decades,” Chessman said.

Berger’s score embodies trauma musically in the sounds of Vietnamese instruments that place us at the locus of the massacre. Interspersed throughout the score are fragments from the music for the liturgy for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. A Western string quartet plays in a dissonant post-World War II modernist musical language. In his role as vocalist, Rinde Eckert often finds himself wailing and keening near the top end of the vocal range.

Mỹ Lai is a musical exploration of one of the darkest chapters in U.S. military history, and through live performance and recording technology, the recording of the opera brings the My Lai Massacre into the present. But the effect of the opera, Berger says, can be even more immediate.

“I think the really impactful piece of this is when I talk to my undergraduates, when I talk to kids about the piece or we present the piece, or we have high school students come. And suddenly it hits them, and it hits me, that these young people in the helicopter were their age, the same age,” Berger said. “And that’s a real shock.”

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.