For its second and last Resident Artist production of the winter, Pittsburgh Opera will present the local premiere of Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, beginning Saturday, February 23, at the company’s headquarters in the Strip District. The opera is based on Tom Philpott’s book, which tells the true story of Colonel Jim Thompson, America’s longest-held prisoner of war. In two acts, the work covers Thompson’s ordeal during the Vietnam War, followed by the sad aftermath of his liberation–a period of over nine years. Colonel Thompson survived his captivity by clinging to memories of his wife, Alyce, and their children. But Alyce, who believed him to be dead, eventually moved on with her life and on to another man, thus leading to a crushing reunion and consequences after Jim’s release.
Cipullo’s “chamber opera” is built for four singers playing two roles: young Jim and Alyce, to be sung here by tenor Terrence Chin-Loy and soprano Ashley Fabian: and their older counterparts, to be portrayed by baritone Benjamin Taylor and soprano Caitlin Gotimer. The opera has received a considerable number of productions and much critical acclaim. Reviewing its performance in Fort Worth, Opera News called the work “tense, nervous and gripping theater… intimate in its presentation… and epic in its scope and effect,” and added that “the dramatic tension was relentless.” When Chelsea Opera presented the work in 2010, the New York Times stated that Mr. Cipullo’s “vocal writing is angular and declamatory at times, but he has a keen sense of when to let that modernist approach melt into glowing melody.” “A work of our time…[i]t holds its own against the greatest of the classical repertoire, while helping to redefine it at the rarer scale of chamber opera,” was the opinion of DC Arts Beat.
The strong cast of Pittsburgh Opera’s adaptation of Glory Denied consists of four young singers who have all made exceptionally good impressions this season and last. Newcomer Caitlin Gotimer made an excellent debut in Hansel & Gretel, and last month was quite thrilling in afterWARds. It came as quite a surprise to learn that this gifted soprano is an almost “accidental” opera singer.
“I did not sing opera before college,” Gotimer shared recently. “I sang musical theater. When I went to Binghamton University, I auditioned to be a part of a musical. I ended up getting in, and part of the agreement that they have is that the people who are in the main stage musical can audition to get voice lessons. I sang a musical theater piece, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel, and the voice faculty heard me and asked, ‘Wait, you don’t know about opera at all?’ And I said, ‘No, I’ve never had a voice lesson.’ They said, ‘That doesn’t seem right. Are you sure?’ And I replied, ‘Yes, I really have never taken a voice lesson.’ They asked, ‘Can you even name an opera?’ I said ‘Carmen,’ because that was the only one that came to mind. I ended up getting selected to study with one of the full-time voice faculty there, Thomas Goodheart, and then my life did a complete 180. I went from being a biology major to a music major, a vocal performance major, then got into CCM – the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh Opera came and did a round of auditions in Cincinnati, and that’s where I sang for the company and was luckily hired.”
Having heard the strength and brilliance of Ms. Gotimer’s voice, it’s easy to understand Binghamton University’s puzzled reaction to her audition.
Gotimer shared some thoughts on her part in Glory Denied. “Older Alyce is not the ingénue that I’m used to playing. She’s not the Micaela in Carmen, or the Mimi in La bohème. She is very, very strong–not that those other women aren’t strong – but she’s very strong to the point where she has a harsh edge. Tom Cipullo, the composer, once said in an interview, and I agree with him, that if the audience doesn’t like Older Alyce, they won’t enjoy the show. And I think it’s very easy to make her a caricature of this mean woman who made hard-hearted decisions, but in my mind, she made them to survive, and she made them for the sake of her children, and that’s something I can admire – even if her decisions denied Jim of his glory. So for me, the challenge is to find the impetus for her decisions. And even if it’s not super clear to the audience – I have that intention in the performance, that’s what I’m looking for, to make the audience understand that she’s not a mean person who decided to make Jim’s life miserable when he got back, but that she’s a strong survivor who never chose her dilemma. It’s been a very interesting challenge, but it’s also what makes the role so rewarding – aside from the musical challenges. In today’s society, if someone were to make Alyce’s kind of decisions, we would applaud them. We would applaud a strong woman, but back then, she was getting calls from the VFW, calling her all kinds of mean names, and she was really looked down upon. And so she probably had it harder then than if she were making the same decisions now.”
Gotimer also spoke of director Matt Haney’s approach to Glory Denied. “His vision for our production is that she truly believed Jim was dead and has come to terms and mourned that fact. She took the time to grieve in those nine years; she moved on. She has another partner. They’re living together. He raised her kids. She raised his. And I think what Matt’s vision is– that she actually wishes Jim were dead. Not because she hates him, but because she has suffered through the very painstaking ordeal of the work that it takes to move on. She believed in her heart that he was dead. She told her children he was dead. And then he comes back, and it’s like seeing a ghost – having a ghost in your house. Matt is making some very interesting directorial choices to show that to the audience. It will be very cool for the audience to come in and be able to see what Alyce thinks.”
She credits the composer for the changes she will have to make in her delivery of the music in the intimate performance venue.
“Tom Cipullo is very specific about putting in dynamic markings, and when and where to take breaths. In a big theater like the Benedum, most of the time you just take breaths to be heard, to make beautiful music that can be heard in the back row. For this opera – if Tom Cipullo wants a really, really long phrase, I can shape the dynamic and make it a little more intimate. I could still shape the dynamic in the Benedum, but can do it even more in an intimate space. But that applies to the whole opera. The dynamics can be more extreme because we’re not trying to reach someone all the way at the back of the Benedum. But I’m approaching this as if I were singing it in the Benedum.
“I’m really excited. Glory Denied is a great piece. Tom Cipullo did a short residency at CCM. That was where I first was exposed to his music. I did a song cycle of his, an ensemble song cycle, which I fell in love with, and immediately said, ‘I really need to sing more of Tom Cipullo’s music.’ I put Alyce’s ‘After You Hear Me Out’ on my aria package, and then ended up getting hired for the role. It was really cool to get exactly what I wanted!”
For tickets, full production details, audio clips and more information about the local premiere of Glory Denied, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
A Pittsburgh native, George B. Parous began his studies of music and the ‘cello in grade school before his interests turned to opera, its performers and history while in his teens. He has been acknowledged as a contributor or editor of several published works (the first being “Rosa Raisa, A Biography of a Diva,” Northeastern University Press, 2001), and is currently working on his own biography of the German-American dramatic soprano, Johanna Gadski, who sang at the Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera.” A retired IT Analyst, he is an avid genealogist, and has traced his maternal line to 8th century Wessex, England. He’s been a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round since 2014.