Where were you?
That seems to be the question everyone is asking surrounding the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that toppled the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, took thousands of lives and changed the ethos of the country coast to coast and, really, around the globe. As with most traumatic events, we have a predisposition to either file things away in our psyche and numb pain, or to unearth ways to talk, heal and come together.
Music serves to honor, remember and reflect, and with that premise, Sandra Bernhard, director of Houston Grand Opera's community engagement arm known as HGOco, wanted to find a voice to narrate the national tragedy from Houston's perspective. Commissioned through Song of Houston — an initiative to uncover stories that define the unique character of the Bayou City — Pieces of 9/11 - Memories from Houston will add to a growing opus of meaningful, accessible compositions from the group, such as Jack Perla's Courtside and the first-ever mariachi opera, To Cross the Face of the Moon/Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, that deeply connect people with relatable experiences.
Enlisting the help of operatic composer Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, Moby Dick) and librettist Gene Scheer (Three Decembers, Moby Dick), a seven-part song cycle started to form, taking its thematic subject from more than 30 hours of interviews with members of the Houston Fire Department, the Texas Task Force One and affected Houston residents.
Testimonials were collected from those in positions of authority in 2001, including Mayor Lee Brown, Police Chief Clarence O. Bradford, Texas Task Force One leader chief "Big Joe" Clark, Tim Gallagher and nine of the 12 Houston team members who served as first responders. Current Mayor Annise Parker, Minnette Boesel (Parker's assistant for cultural affairs), Houston teachers, students and members of the Houston Islamic community were also interviewed.
"A woman who I didn't know was weeping uncontrollably sitting on the pavement, trying to reach someone who she had lost," Scheer said. "It was horrific."
The final work, Pieces of 9/11 - Memories from Houston, will premiere at noon Friday at the City Hall Reflection Pond. It will also be performed Friday night as part of "Houston Remembers 9/11: An Evening of Remembrance and Unity" at Discovery Green — which also includes a screening of the 9/11 movie Rebirth and a procession led by HPD Chief Charles McClelland and the Houston Police Department Honor Guard — and on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Arab American Cultural Center. There will be two additional performances at Rothko Chapel on Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m.
"We knew we didn't want an opera," Bernhard explained. "We didn't want something morose or too reflective. The idea behind people sharing stories was to allow the audience to reflect — not for the composer to reflect — through dramatic storytelling. Jake Heggie is a theatrical storyteller, an artist of songs, bringing to life people's thoughts."
Having worked through seven musical projects together, including four major stage works and song cycles, Heggie and Scheer know each other's processes well. The text comes first, but before the text comes the idea and the setting.
"I didn't know what to expect when I took on this project," Scheer said. "But I knew it would be difficult. When you speak with remarkable people and beautiful families, some things just stick with you. At the end, Jake and I were trying to acknowledge the tragedy with an uplifting story."
Scheer was tempted to create the libretto by documenting, cutting and pasting people's direct quotes somehow to be more faithful to their accounts. But by translating the experiences to original text, he was able to capture the sentiments — whether serious, honest, moving, surprising or uplifting — that underlied the personal narratives and broaden a Houston-specific story to a universal allegory without resorting to using fiction. Every city in the country, everywhere, had a Ground Zero, Scheer said.
Pieces of 9/11 - Memories from Houston hones in on the story of Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas — uncovered by Scheer during his extensive research — a vivacious and empowered 38-year-old and graduate of Stratford High School and the University of Texas at Austin who perished aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Grandcolas was pregnant with her first child and was just past the first trimester.
The opening and closing lines of Scheer's text are taken from her book, You Can Do It!, which was published after her death with the help of her sisters. The chosen passage urges young women to live life to the fullest. It reads:
Write a poem.
Throw a vase on a potter's wheel.
Take an eight-hour walk.
Learn to sail.
Be a fiery redhead for a month.
At the work's conclusion, Scheer adds a call to action: "What will you do with the moment right now?" In discussions with Lauren's husband and sister, this open-ended coda eulogizes and fulfills her get-to-it raison d'être.
"Lauren's poignant story is really about all of us," Bernhard said. "It centers on the hope of moving forward, not wasting time in fear or revenge. It's about what you are going to do right now, about being in the moment."
Scored for a chamber ensemble including flute, guitar, violin and cello, Heggie's cast calls for baritone, soprano and two girl sopranos, emblematic characteristics of the typical family unit and also including the voice and the purity of a younger generation, or one which was never born.
"I'll never forget what I saw from my West 73rd Street apartment," Scheer said. "I could see the towers burning and smoke rising in the not-so-far distance. I wasn't running like everyone else. A woman who I didn't know was weeping uncontrollably sitting on the pavement, trying to reach someone who she had lost. It was horrific."
For Bernhard, the piece isn't just about 9/11. It speaks to missed opportunities to say "I love you" when someone walks out the door. It's about what people hold dear.
"This piece is for those who didn't come home that night," Bernhard said.