Anthony Haden Guest calls “The Plain of Jars” — a chamber opera by Keith Patchel about America’s secret war in Laos — “the lineal descendant of Stravinsky’s ‘Nightingale’ and Alban Berg’s ‘Lulu’ and ‘Wozzeck.'”I haven’t seen it yet, but my staff of thousands tells me it “exposes the wounds caused by America’s use of Laos as a testing ground for new military weapons during the Vietnam War era, including the birth of drone technology.” The opera opens next week in New York University’s Impact Festival, starring mezzo-sopranos Xi Yang in the role of Gaia, and Clara Francesca as the Manipulative CIA Agent. Performances run July 27, 28, and 29.
A press release states, “It recalls the story of limitless American ambition to create a war for the sake of war,” and adds:
From 1964 to 1969 U.S. military forces flew 580,944 bombing missions over the Laotian Plain of Jars.* More than two million tons of munitions were dropped, the equivalent of a B-52 load of bombs dropping every eight minutes for nine years. To this day land mines planted in Laos are still present as threats to Laotian lives.
The opera, spurred by Patchel’s reading of Fred Branfman’s Voices from The Plain of Jars in June 2016, was first workshopped and staged at West 52nd‘s Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble. Created from scratch over 12 days, it analyses America’s political involvement during the Vietnam Nixon Paris Peace talk era. Male roles include Robert E. Turner as John F. Kennedy, Timothy McCown Reynolds as Richard Nixon, Jon L. Peacock as Lyndon Baines Johnson, and John Hayden as Henry Kissinger.
Anthony Haden Guest writes that “Patchel’s composition is a fluid collage of synthesisers, keyboards and computer samples, many taken from repertoires of ethnic and tribal music, and the whole seems utterly appropriate, becom[ing] an organic element within the rapturous math of deep space.”
According to the producers:
In the complex U.S. political climate of 2017, “The Plain of Jars” invites you to question the choices of “The Great American Free World.” How do we reconcile the damage caused to those caught in the undertow of “American interests?” How do we reckon with such a conscious act of terror on another people? And why do we seem to insist on ignoring the lessons from our past?
*The Plain of Jars is a plateau in the eastern part of Laos (a neutral country during the Vietnam War). At first America began bombing that region to stop the North Vietnamese from infiltrating South Vietnam by way of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which passed near the Plain of Jars. But the American bombing quickly escalated into a much more complex and bloody scenario under the guise of stopping the Pathet Lao, a Communist insurgency in Laos.