Opera Recounts Struggles Of Longest-Held POW And His Family

Feb 22, 2019

In December 1963, an Army captain named Floyd James Thompson shipped out from Fort Bragg, N.C. to Vietnam. 

It was just weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On March 26, 1964, Thompson’s reconnaissance plane was shot down, and he was taken prisoner by the Vietnamese. While he subsequently survived torture and starvation at the hands of his captors, Thompson would not return home until 1973, when the headlines were noting the first criminal trials over break-ins at the Watergate Hotel.

Thompson’s nine years in captivity remain a record for an American POW. But there is more to his story: Thompson returned stateside to a much different country than he’d known -- and also to learn that his wife, Alyce, and their four children had started a new life with another man. A reunion that Thompson expected to be joyous was instead fraught with confusion, anger and bitterness.

Tom Philpott told Col. Thompson’s story in his 2001 oral history “Glory Denied.” In 2007, award-winning composer Tom Cipullo adapted the book into a two-act opera that’s since been staged a dozen times around the country. The local premiere is this week at Pittsburgh Opera.

“This show is about, to me, survival, actually,” says James Lesniak of Pittsburgh Opera, who conducts a nine-piece orchestra for this new production. Lesniak doesn’t mean just Thompson’s survival: The opera gives equal time to Alyce Thompson, who struggled with incomplete knowledge about her husband’s fate and ultimately did what she felt was best for her and her children.

The opera takes a novel approach: It has just four roles, the younger and older versions of both Jim Thompson and Alyce Thompson. All four are onstage the entire 75-minute show, each sung by a different Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist, with stage direction by Matthew Haney. (Resident Artists are post-graduate, pre-professionals serving a sort of paid two-year internship.)

The opera opens with Younger Thompson (tenor Terrence Chin-Loy), who’s in captivity, singing alongside Older Thompson (baritone Benjamin Taylor), who has come home. Younger Alyce (soprano Ashley Fabian) longs for her husband’s return; Older Alyce (soprano Caitlin Gotimer) berates the military bureaucracy and pushes for Thompson to be declared dead so she can move on with her life.

The couple attempted unsuccessfully to reconcile; Col. Thompson died in 2002.

While his story as a returning veteran is extreme in some ways, broadly it reflects the experience of the many veterans who struggle to acclimate to life back home. In "Glory Denied," Cipullo’s treatment of the ordeal’s physical and emotional costs is unstinting. Younger Thompson recounts being beaten and forced to sign a propaganda letter while imprisoned. Older Thompson recalls being confined for months in a bamboo cage so small that he could neither sit up nor stretch out. Alyce, her life in a kind of limbo, refuses the Army the right to publicize Thompson’s name as a POW. (At Alyce's direction, his name never appeared on one of the bracelets the government issued to the public honoring POWs, a fact that grieved him sorely.)

Older Thompson sings a bitter aria about returning home in 1973 to a country and a family he no longer recognizes: “Disc brakes, eight-track tapes, bucket seats, and wives who cheat” is one line in a litany of cultural changes from the advent of drug culture to “boxers with Muslim names.”

“He didn’t have a place to where he could even call home. His whole foundation was completely destroyed,” says Taylor, who portrays Older Thompson. “For him, it just kind of sends him to a place where he’s completely lost. He’s lost in this world he doesn’t know.”

Yet “Glory Denied” paints its characters in shades of gray, says Ashley Fabian, who sings Younger Alyce.

“Most of the time in opera we have a very clear villain, we have a very clear hero,” she says. “But this opera isn’t constrained by those things. The realism of the piece allows you to see these human beings as who they are and who they were.”

Despite its bleak subject matter, “Glory Denied” has proved quite popular for a contemporary opera, with productions critically acclaimed. “Opera News” called Cipullo’s adaptation “masterfully taut”; a Houston Press critic wrote that a 2017 production at Houston Grand Opera was “[p]ainful, exhilarating, at times far too true for comfort.”

Lesniak, the conductor, praises the approach of composer Cipullo, who also wrote the libretto.

“One extraordinary thing about this piece is that Tom Cipullo is able to suspend judgment and give moments of sympathy or even empathy to every character’s struggle,” he says.

There are four performances of “Glory Denied” starting Saturday at Pittsburgh Opera’s headquarters, in the Strip District. Cipullo and author Philpott will attend a talk following the March 1 performance.

Ticket information is here.

WESA receives funding from Pittsburgh Opera.