UrbanArias Artistic Director Robert Wood on searing musical drama ‘Glory Denied’

This month, UrbanArias presents composer Tom Cipullo’s chamber opera Glory Denied; the contemporary musical drama based upon the true story of America’s longest-held prisoner of war (POW), Floyd James “Jim” Thompson. He was just an ordinary man who spent nearly nine years as a POW. In 1973 he returned to an America he could not recognize, and to a wife and family who had suffered their own private Hell.

Thompson and his wife Alyce married young. Then a cruel war and its aftershocks took a harsh toll on each of them and their children.

Cipullo’s Glory Denied is based upon the book of the same name by Northern Virginia author Tom Philpott. The book is an interweaving of agonizing oral histories “of people put into extraordinary circumstances; of families tortured in their own way,” as Philpott explained in a recent conversation.

As Philpott’s book relates, Jim Thompson was a warrior who survived unspeakable isolation and torture in jungle prison camps and mountains in South and North Vietnam and Laos “on a vision of an idyllic family, wife, and country as he planned his life when coming home,” not knowing if he ever would. He came back mentally and physically wounded. When he arrived back in the States he “was distressed and blindsided.” A man bewildered by all the changes in America who only wanted “what I left.”

Alyce “survived the best she could” as she went on with her life “forever changed by a war she despised.” She had been a young woman “totally dependent on him for everything” as she told Philpott. She had raised four children while her husband Jim was a POW. She was a wife who wondered out loud if she still loved him. Someone who “was hurt by what he had caused to happen.” A wife who wanted her husband to hear her out if he could.

To find out more about Glory Denied, I chatted with UrbanArias’s artistic director, Robert Wood.

David Siegel: Why did you decide to produce Glory Denied?

Robert Wood. Photo courtesy of UrbanArias.
Robert Wood. Photo courtesy of UrbanArias.

Robert Wood: Glory Denied is the perfect example of the kind of repertoire UrbanArias wanted to produce: relevant, gripping, dramatic, and beautiful. Tom Cipullo’s music is among the best of what 21st-century American composers have to offer – it sounds and feels like a very modern piece, but he’s not afraid to let the modernity melt into harmonies that are just gorgeous to hear.

UrbanArias produced Glory Denied nearly a decade ago. Why again now in January 2020?

I decided to produce it again ten years later for several reasons. The opera Glory Denied takes Col. Thompson’s immense suffering and views it through the prism of his relationship with his wife, Alyce. The elements of that relationship – the strains of absence, the desire for breathing room, her need to move on from a place of uncertainty, and his need to count on her being there for him when he got home – are all things the audience can identify with. The Vietnam War ended over 40 years ago, but we’re still dealing with the rifts it caused in our society. And the story of the effects of wartime hardship on service members and their families is still very relevant.

In more practical terms, our audience has also expanded since our first season, and quite a few of our current fans didn’t see it when we first produced it. We also have more resources to bring to the table this time, and our new production will be even more searing than the first one.

How would you describe Glory Denied?

Perhaps the most brilliant thing about the opera Glory Denied is how Tom Cipullo tells the whole story with only two characters: Col. Thompson and his wife Alyce. Each is portrayed by two singers, who play younger and older versions of the couple. Thus, we’re able to see Jim and Alyce experiencing the events that shaped their marriage as they happen, and also looking back at them years later. The libretto is taken almost entirely from the text of Tom Philpott’s oral history of Col. Thompson, so essentially everything they are saying is a direct quote from a letter or an interview. The one exception is a darkly humorous song (“Welcome Home”) in which Thompson lists the things that are different about the America he returns to in 1973.

The music is melodic but driving. The energy and conflict in the story are depicted through exciting and complicated rhythms; dissonance marks the harsher parts of the story, but it always transitions into truly beautiful melodies when the characters reach moments of introspection. Cipullo’s music clearly has influences – here Copland, there Bernstein, over there Puccini – but the end result is an unmistakable sound and style that belong to Cipullo alone. (Live music will be performed by members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra).

Please tell me a bit about the Glory Denied cast.

We’re featuring a cast of very experienced artists who have sung all over the country, including at WNO and the MET. The folks who sing with UrbanArias love having this “small house” experience – where the audience can see every facial expression and feel the artists’ voices resonating in their own bodies. It’s also extremely important that the singers have good diction, as UrbanArias does not use supertitles. We believe that the immediacy and impact of the theatrical experience is heightened when the audience focuses solely on the stage – but that means that our artists need to bring the text clearly to the public, as well as beautifully. It’s no easy task!

One last question: For those with few close connections to military service or the Vietnam War, why should they come see Glory Denied?

It’s interesting – although as you point out, it doesn’t touch many of us directly, America is currently engaged in its longest-running military conflict. The issues raised in Glory Denied – long separations, conflicts without a clear objective, how our society treats women, how our society treats veterans, and how larger political forces affect the individual – all are still with us today. I think Glory Denied serves as a fantastic window into our current lives, and I think that a younger generation will be interested in this opera not only as a recent historical drama, but as a reflection of our nagging national dilemmas, from patriotism to equality.

A final note: UrbanArias will be performing Glory Denied at Keegan Theatre. Susan Marie Rhea, Keegan Theatre’s Artistic Director, shared “We’re delighted to host Urban Arias at the Keegan Theatre. Their mission is exciting and important, and they play a vital role in the DC arts landscape. It is a great opportunity to introduce our audiences to their work, and to share our theater home.”

Glory Denied from UrbanArias plays January 16-19, 2020, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets go online.

Note: Contains mature references, may not be suitable for young audiences.

Urban Arias Glory Denied cast:

Timothy Mix as Older Thompson
Caroline Worra as Older Alyce
John Riesen as Younger Thompson
Cree Carrico as Younger Alyce

Conducted by Robert Wood featuring members of Inscape Chamber Orchestra
Directed by Kristine McIntyre
Scenic Design by Adam Crinson
Lighting and Projection Design by Kathy Maxwell
Costume Design by Grace Santamaria

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