By CB AdamsContributing WriterThere’s no easy way to say this: Union Avenue Opera’s season-ender production of Tom Cipullo’s true story Glory Denied is not easy to recommend because it is “not” many things.

It’s not a familiar, time-tested story arc (dare we say, post-modern?). Like most operas, it doesn’t examine a happy subject (war, torture, dissolution, hatred substance abuse, suicide, etc.), but unlike most operas, it ends despairingly rather than tragically, hopefully or even poetically.

Because it is not an opera that takes fictional specifics and reaches out for the universal — it’s an adaptation of the eponymous book by Tom Philpott, Glory Denied presents the very real specifics of a very real man (husband, father, Army colonel, America’s longest-held prisoner of war, alcoholic, etc.) and turns those specifics deeply inward – into gut shots rather than navel gazing. Nor is it filled with likeable characters; it’s especially hard to identify with or have much true empathy for either version of the wife, Alyce, despite Cipullo’s best efforts to present her side of the story.

And it’s not about America at its best – no rose-colored, rah-rah,
flag-waving, patriotic boosterism in this story. This is an opera about an ugly
war, an ugly time in America and the ugly way that both the government and our
fellow citizens dealt with its ugly details and aftereffects. On stage, the
horrific details keep adding up like those nightly body counts on the evening
news during the Vietnam War.

The first act deals primarily with the eight-year
imprisonment and physical abuse that Floyd James “Jim” Thompson endured,
followed by the second act examining how his post-war life was just as
tortuous, albeit in very different ways. (For plot details, do a quick internet
search – it debuted in 2007 and has had more than 20 productions since then.)

And yet, it is precisely because of all of the things that Glory Denied is not that makes it precisely
why UAO’s production deserves an audience – and certainly one better attended
than the August 17 performance (c’mon, St. Louis theater goers in general and
opera goers in particular!). Not everything worthwhile is easy and not
everything can be sugarcoated to help the bitterness go down. Glory Denied (in its St. Louis debut), should
be seen for exactly what it is: a cautionary tale. It serves the same purpose
as the uncomfortable “aversion therapy” scene in A Clockwork Orange – the one where the lead character, Alex, is
forced to watch violent images while his eyes are clamped open.

Union Avenue Opera’s Glory Denied dress rehearsal on August 13, 2019.Kudos and a tip of the hat to UAO for taking a chance, pushing the boundaries of our local audiences and supporting the work of a modern composer. The company showed extraordinary commitment to this production. As part of a PNC Arts Alive Grant, UAO presented a free panel discussion about Glory Denied and the Vietnam War on August 13 at Soldier’s Memorial.

Tom Cipullo attended the opening weekend of the opera and led talk-back presentations after the performances. Veterans were eligible for free general admission tickets and active military could see the production for $15. There was even a special room reserved for those who might have an anxious reaction during each performance.

Befitting the intimate nature of the story, Glory Denied relies on a cast of just four portraying two versions of the same character under the direction of St. Louis native Dean Anthony, making his UAO debut. David Walton portrays Younger Thompson and Peter Kendall Clark (making his UAO debut, though he has sung the role previously) plays the central character, Older Thompson.

Thompson’s wife is portrayed by Karina Brazas as the Younger Alyce and Gina Galati as Older Alyce. Brazas and Galati deserve some sort of operatic hazard pay for meeting the challenges of portraying such unlikeable characters so well – it makes their accomplishment that much more appreciated. That same appreciation applies to the entire ensemble as they work with a script consisting entirely of lines from actual interviews, correspondence and other research materials.

The music – sometimes jarring, discordant, atonal – was energetic and robust as conducted by UAO artistic director Scott Schoonover. The minimalist set design by Roger Speidel, while spare, provided appropriate details to convey time and indicate place. He made especially good use of foot lockers and many forms of paper, such as letters, government memoranda, newspapers and magazines as they were thrown, dropped and flung throughout the stage.  

The peak performance of the evening was Clark’s bellicose
rendition of “Welcome Home,” which has some of the tightest, strongest and
angriest writing in the opera – even though it  borrows the same ironic, rapid-fire structure
created by Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t
Start the Fire,” and REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel
Fine).”

Yes, Glory Denied is a tough sell, especially if all you seek is passive escapism (there’s a new Lion King for that) rather than a production that asks you to actively, intellectually consider one of the true costs of war – and not just the Vietnam War.

Union Avenue Opera’s Glory Denied dress rehearsal on August 13, 2019.

It’s a bit like being required to read William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! orHerman Mehlville’s Moby Dick. Sure, they look dense and imposing sitting unopened – and maybe you won’t love every single sentence – but there’s a satisfaction when you make it to the end. Glory Denied deserves that much respect and deserves a fuller audience than last Saturday’s – even if it is a bitter pill.

Union Avenue Opera presents “Glory Denied” August 16, 17,
23 and 24 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information,
visit www.unionavenueopera.org.

Premiere of Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied

UAO receives PNC Foundation grant to fund outreach and veteran/military discounts in conjunction with Glory DeniedComposer Tom Cipullo to attend opening night performance and participate in Talk-Back session following the opera Union Avenue Opera closes its 25th Anniversary Season with the St. Louis premiere of Tom Cipullo’s poignant and powerful 2007 opera, Glory Denied, Aug. 16-17 and 23-24.

The opera is based on a book with the same title by Tom Philpott that chronicles the true and harrowing story of America’s longest held prisoner of war, Colonel James “Jim” Thompson, who was held in Vietnam for almost nine years. The tale is communicated from the perspective of Jim and his wife Alyce and gives voice, often in a heart-rending fashion, to the much-overlooked struggles of American families during the Vietnam War and in the aftermath of the conflict.

St. Louis native, Dean Anthony makes his UAO directorial debut as Founding Artistic Director Scott Schoonover conducts. The opera employs only four singers in a unique concept wherein the character of Younger Jim Thompson (tenor, David Walton) – the prisoner of war, is often onstage and singing with the Older Thompson (baritone, Peter Kendall Clark in his UAO debut) – the eventually freed veteran. The two iterations of the same person nearly a decade a part which espouse differing perspectives and deal with separate issues. Similarly, Younger Alyce (soprano, Karina Brazas) and Older Alyce (soprano, Gina Galati) express what they experienced during Jim’s captivity and after his return home. It is a powerful juxtaposition that makes for a compelling evening of theater.

“Glory Denied is an emotional rollercoaster,” said UAO director, Dean Anthony. “People need to see Glory Denied, as it is the cause and effect on all sides. So often, the lives of POW’s have been forgotten and become a part of our past. The sacrifice and commitment of these women and men should never be forgotten, nor should the families who were back at home.”

In conjunction with its production of Glory Denied, UAO will engage veterans and the community through a series of outreach events thanks to a grant from the PNC Foundation through PNC Arts Alive, a multi-year initiative dedicated to supporting visual and performing arts. UAO will present a panel discussion, a free preview concert for veterans and active military at Soldiers Memorial War Museum, talk-back sessions following the performance, as well as its Know Before You Go Friday night lecture series.

Additionally, UAO has partnered with music therapist Sarah Michaelis to create a FREE program that incorporates creative music making and relaxation tailored to promote healing among veterans that will be taken into local veteran communities.

Glory Denied composer Tom Cipullo will be in the audience for the opening weekend of the opera and will participate in the opening night talk-back presentation after the performance.

About PNC Foundation – The PNC Foundation, which receives its principal funding from The PNC Financial Services Group (www.pnc.com), actively supports organizations that provide services for the benefit of communities in which it has a significant presence. The foundation focuses its philanthropic mission on early childhood education and community and economic development, which includes the arts and culture. Through Grow Up Great, its signature cause that began in 2004, PNC has created a bilingual $500 million, multi-year initiative to help prepare children from birth to age 5 for success in school and life.

About Union Avenue Opera – UAO was founded in 1994 to bring affordable, professional, original-language opera to St. Louis, a mission the company continues to pursue to this day. UAO is committed to hiring the most talented artists, directors, designers and technicians both locally and from across the United States. UAO provides promising young singers the first steppingstone of their professional career. UAO is a publicly supported 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization registered in Missouri. In 2018 UAO became an OPERA American Professional Company Member. OPERA America is the national membership organization for artists, administrators and audiences, dedicated to support the creation, presentation and enjoyment of opera. 

UAO offers vibrant and affordable opera experiences in original languages to audiences who reflect the breadth and diversity of the St. Louis region from the acoustically superb sanctuary of an historic church located in the urban Visitation Park neighborhood in St. Louis’ Central West End.

Financial assistance has been provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, and with support from the Regional Arts Commission and PNC Foundation.

[PERFORMANCE INFORMATION FOLLOWS]

Tom Cipullo’s GLORY DENIED Four Performances: August 16, 17, 23, 24 at 8:00 PM Based on the novel “Glory Denied” by Tom Philpott Presented in English with English supertitles America’s longest-held prisoner of war dreams of coming home. But home is a place he will not recognize. Follow the gut-wrenching saga of Colonel Jim Thompson as he transitions from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the tree-lined streets of suburban America. Glory Denied speaks to the plight of so many of our veterans who nobly fought for their country but face huge challenges when it comes to re-assimilating into society—and their longed-for normal lives—after service. This true story explores the unimaginable bravery asked of soldiers and the nature of hope itself. It is a story of a nation divided and a country that changed significantly in the decade of his imprisonment. Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied made waves in opera circles when it premiered a decade ago and continues to do so today. Single tickets range from $55 to $32 SPECIAL DISCOUNTS: FREE General Admission tickets for veterans. $15 General Admission ticket for active military. Online: www.unionavenueopera.org Phone: (314) 361-2881 ** Union Avenue Opera recognizes that the content of Glory Denied is of a sensitive nature to many people. Our board certified music therapist will be available during all performances of Glory Denied at Union Avenue Opera **

Don’t miss the following FREE/DISCOUNTED events for Veterans and Active Military thanks to a grant from the PNC Foundation:

Glory Denied Preview Concert on August 9 at 3:00pm Soldiers Memorial Military Museum | 1315 Chestnut Street | 63103 FREE for Veterans and Active Military

Enjoy a special concert presentation of Glory Denied, Tom Cipullo’s acclaimed opera based on the true story of America’s Longest-Held Prisoner of war in the JCT Assembly Hall at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum on August 9 at 3:00pm. Tickets are FREE for veterans and active military. All other tickets are $10 per person and $5 for MHS Members. Advance reservations encouraged. Order online at www.mohistory.org

Glory Denied Panel Discussion on August 13 from 6:00pm to 7:00pm Soldiers Memorial Military Museum | 1315 Chestnut Street | 63103 FREE and open to the public

Host Ruth Ezell moderates an intimate panel discussion with insights on the opera Glory Denied, the Vietnam War and the POW Experiences in the JCT Assembly Hall at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum. Panelists include United States Marine Corps Sergeant Rodney “Rocky” Sickmann (POW, Iranian Hostage Crisis) and Glory Denied director Dean Anthony. This is a free event and open to the public. No reservations needed.

Glory Denied Talk Back Sessions on August 16, 17, 23, 24 following the opera Union Avenue Opera | 733 N. Union Blvd. | 63108

Join us each night following the performance of Glory Denied for an intimate talk-back session with members of the artistic team and cast, including special guest, Tom Cipullo the composer of Glory Denied and director Dean Anthony on opening night (August 16).

Know Before You Go – Friday Night Lecture Series on August 16 and 24 at 7:00pm Gretchen Brigham Gallery at Union Avenue Opera | 733 N. Union Blvd. | 63108

Join Union Avenue Opera and Glen Bauer, Ph. D. for our Friday Night lecture series. Dr. Bauer will discuss the opera’s historical importance, guide you through the plot line, and offer a sneak peak of the music to come. This is a free event.

Free Music Therapy Workshop for veterans

Music is known to be an excellent tool for enhancing communication, community, and healing. Recognizing that veterans face unique challenges after their formal service ends, we have partnered with local Board Certified Music Therapist Sarah Michaelis to create a free program that incorporates creative music making and relaxation tailored to promote healing among veterans. Michaelis will guide participants through a variety of music therapy activities that are tailored to veterans to support increased relaxation, self-expression, and positive regard for self and others. This program seeks to build a sense of community and purpose through creative musical experiences. Programs will be tailored to the needs of each individual group. The program is completely free, and sessions may be arranged for July and August 2019 and can be scheduled by contacting Union Avenue Opera at 314-361-2881 or emailing UAO’s Administrative Director Emily Stolarski at [email protected]