Kronos Quartet's Asia-Pacific premiere of Vietnam War-themed opera at arts fest

The Kronos Quartet comprises (from left) cellist Sunny Yang, violist Hank Dutt and violinists David Harrington and John Sherba.
The Kronos Quartet comprises (from left) cellist Sunny Yang, violist Hank Dutt and violinists David Harrington and John Sherba.PHOTO: JAY BLAKESBERG

Kronos Quartet returns to its war-inspired roots with the opera My Lai, which will be performed here next week

The critically acclaimed Kronos Quartet began 44 years ago, when founder David Harrington put together a group to perform music inspired by the Vietnam War.

The San Francisco-based group returns to its origins with the opera My Lai, inspired by the helicopter pilot who tried to stop the horrific 1968 massacre of Vietnamese villagers by American soldiers.

My Lai will be performed in the Asia-Pacific for the first time on Thursday and Friday next week at the Drama Centre Theatre. The concert is part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) and will be followed by another Kronos Quartet performance on Sept 2, featuring the group's favourite melodies.

In an e-mail interview, violinist Harrington says that much of what the quartet has done was a response to the American war in Vietnam.

He was old enough to be drafted to fight in the war (but did not), when he heard about the My Lai massacre.

Later, thousands of veterans were left homeless and mentally ill on American streets.

  • BOOK IT / MY LAI

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Theatre, Level 3 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Aug 31 and Sept 1, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $45 to $85 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Advisory: Some coarse language, www.sifa.sg

    AN EVENING WITH KRONOS QUARTET

    WHERE: Drama Centre Theatre

    WHEN: Sept 2, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $50 to $110 from Sistic

    INFO: www.sifa.sg

"I felt our American society had gone mad, literally mad," he says, recalling his response to the news that more than 500 villagers had been slaughtered by American troops.

"There was no way I was ever going to fight in that war."

In August 1973, in Seattle, he heard George Crumb's war-inspired Black Angels on the radio. "All of a sudden, a crazed world made a little bit of sense and I had no choice but to get a group going that would be able to play that piece," he says.

"Everything Kronos has tried to do since then is a response to that conflicted and broken feeling. We are trying to make something whole, to produce clarity in a very disorienting world, where musicians and thoughtful questions are sometimes, if not often marginalised."

The first musicians of the Kronos Quartet were students together in high school and college. In 1977, the quartet relocated from Washington state to California without a viola player. Harrington brought in Hank Dutt, who remains in the ensemble. Violinist John Sherba was recruited through auditions a little later and current cellist Sunny Yang joined in 2013.

The Kronos Quartet is known for technical perfection and for working with an eclectic group of eminent composers and musicians. It has premiered the works of American composers Terry Riley and Philip Glass. It has collaborated with Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man and Canadian singer k.d. lang and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

Through its platform, Fifty For The Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, the quartet commissions 10 works a year for five years, five each by female and male composers. Sifa is a commissioning partner for the platform.

The 90-minute My Lai features the Kronos Quartet, tenor Rinde Eckert and Vietnamese multiinstrumental artist Van-Anh Vanessa Vo. It is composed by Jonathan Berger, with libretto by Harriet Scott Chessman.

It centres on helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who tried to stop the carnage. He landed his helicopter between soldiers and the villagers, and his crew were ordered to shoot their fellow Americans if they attacked the villagers.

Thompson died in 2006; little was known about his actions until decades after the slaughter, since politicians were keen to downplay bad press.

Harrington hopes listeners will judge the opera on its artistic merit as well as its theme. He calls the opera "a moral, sonic counterbalance to the awful event".

"My Lai allows the listener to reflect upon the horror of that day through the eyes and memories of someone whose bravery, presence of mind and moral courage compelled action in the face of evil," he says.

"My Lai distils some of the most positive aspects of humanity, at the same time as it recognises a senselessly destructive event that caused immense suffering."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'Quartet revisits Vietnam war horrors'. Print Edition | Subscribe