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An Opera that Contains Some of Puccini's Best Music.

Fresh Air Classical Music Critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new recording of Puccini’s Il Trittico (ill TRIT-I-co). Schwartz says this group of one-act operas contains some of Puccini’s best music.

08:33

Other segments from the episode on January 5, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 5, 2000: Interview with Barbara Sonneborn; Review of Puccini's album "Il Trittico."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 05, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010501np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Exploring the Lives of Women Widowed by the Vietnam War
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:00

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with Barbara Sonneborn, director of the documentary "Regret to Inform," about American and Vietnamese women who were widowed by the war in Vietnam. Sonneborn's husband was killed in battle in 1968 when she was 24.

Her film won two awards at Sundance last year as well as an Academy Award nomination. It airs on PBS later this month.

Also, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new recording of one-act operas by Puccini. He says they contain some of Puccini's best music.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(NEWSBREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In 1968, my guest, Barbara Sonneborn, was told that her husband was killed in Vietnam during a mortar attack. Twenty years later, she decided to make a film about American and Vietnamese women who were widowed by the war.

Her film, "Regret to Inform," received an Academy Award nomination last year for best documentary feature. It won two awards at Sundance in the documentary category, best director and best cinematography.

"Regret to Inform" will be shown on many PBS stations January 24.

Here's a clip from the film. This woman, one of Sonneborn's interviewees, is reading the end of a letter she received from her husband shortly after she was notified that he'd died in Vietnam.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "REGRET TO INFORM")

VIETNAM WAR WIDOW: "They just passed word to stand by, so I have to finish. I'll write again when I get a chance. Only 317 days to go! All my love, Bill."

I received that after he died, after I knew he was killed. One day I went out, and there was this letter. And I thought, Well, maybe he's not dead. Oh! They made a mistake. (inaudible). Then I read the date on it and I realized.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: I talked to Barbara Sonneborn about her documentary and her own experiences as a war widow. I asked her to take us back to the day she heard her husband was missing in action. It was also her 24th birthday.

BARBARA SONNEBORN, "REGRET TO INFORM": It was early in the morning, and I was saying with my parents. Jeff had wanted me to stay with my parents when he went to Vietnam. We were living in California, but I'd moved back to Chicago.

And I was lying in bed, and I had friends who were going to take me out to lunch, and it was just, you know, your ordinary birthday being planned.

But the doorbell rang, and nobody seemed to be answering it, so I put on my bathrobe and went to the front door and called out, "Who's there?" And I heard somebody on the other side say, "United States Army."

And I just leaned against the door, you know, with my back to the door. And I remember having this feeling that if I bolted out the back, somehow it wasn't going to happen. You know, just that -- the way your brain works. Denial can be a very strong force.

But anyway, I opened the door, and there was this young man with a long face in a uniform, standing there. And he said, "I regret to inform you that your husband, Jeff Gurvitz (ph), is missing in action in Vietnam."

And I just fell apart, started crying and screaming. And, you know, I was so angry, I just felt really angry. I was angry about the war and I just couldn't believe this was happening. And I thought I was alone in the house, but it turned out my brother was home from school, which I had in, you know, my crazed moment, forgotten. And he got up and found my parents shopping somewhere. And, you know, in those days there were no cell phones.

But, you know, and he made calls to a friend, and they -- you know, the friend came over. And then we had to get in touch with Jeff's parents, who lived about 40 miles away. We were on the far north side of Chicago, and they were on the far south side. And his mother had had some heart problems at that point. But fortunately his brother answered. And they soon came over, and we just began waiting.

So the officer who'd come over said he would call later that day if he got good news, and just to tell me what was going on. And he called, and there'd been no news. He said lots of units were missing, and if he heard something -- you know, again, he said, "I'll let you know right away."

GROSS: You had been told your husband was missing in action. How long did it take till you found out that he'd actually died?

SONNEBORN: Well, the next day we sat and we waited. And that afternoon, the lieutenant's car drove up. And I knew that if I saw him come to my house, it was going to be bad news. So I ran out and I said to him, to the lieutenant, I said, "He's dead." And he said, "Yes."

So that was it.

GROSS: What were you able to find out, then, about how your husband died?

SONNEBORN: Well, I was told by the captain -- I got a letter from the captain saying that he crawled out of a foxhole during a mortar attack, a battle with the North Vietnamese army. He crawled out of the foxhole to rescue his wounded radio operator. And they were both killed, along with four other men.

GROSS: Were his remains sent home?

SONNEBORN: Yes, they were. I was very fortunate that way, because I always thought that dead was the worst thing you can think of. But missing really is the worst thing you can think of. And in addition to that, his family -- I -- you know, I was just crazed at the time that he died. And my father, who was kind of handling things for both of our families, I said to him, "Don't let anybody see his body." I just had this crazy idea that I didn't want anybody to see his body.

So he said, "OK." And about six weeks later, I was having dinner with Jeff's family, and his mother mentioned something about when his dad and his brother had gone to see his body. And I just about fell off the chair. And I didn't say anything at the time to his parents, but I came home, and I remember walking in the door, and I slammed the door and I started screaming at my father, "How could you let them see his body?"

And my dad said he really didn't have the right not to let them. And he would -- he was going to tell me later on, but he didn't think it would help me now. And I just -- you know, I was hysterical and unreasonable. And -- but what I was doing at the time is, I didn't want to believe that he was in that box. You know, I wanted to think it really wasn't true. And his parents, you know, had kind of made me see that it was true.

So I'm -- in the end, I'm extremely grateful that they insisted upon seeing him, and...

GROSS: So you didn't look yourself.

SONNEBORN: I didn't look myself. I just couldn't. I couldn't.

I don't know if I'm glad. In a way, I think I'm glad that I didn't look. Because even though, you know, the mind is the mind and the heart really is what deals with these kinds of things in life, and I have irrationally thought at times that I've seen him walking down the street, seen him on a bus. You know, I've chased somebody down the street years -- you know, in years past, you know, just to make sure it wasn't Jeff.

And when the POWs came home in 1973, you know, I watched, you know, and I found that a very painful thing to watch, because I somehow thought he was going to get off that plane. I knew in my head he wasn't going to get off the plane, but my heart and the cells in my body didn't know, you know, that he wasn't going to walk down that plane because a (ph) POW.

So you know, denial's a very strong force.

GROSS: Were there any messages that your husband had left with buddies in case he died, messages that he wanted you to have?

SONNEBORN: No. He really wasn't out in the field that long. He was only in Vietnam for eight weeks before he was killed...

GROSS: Oh, that's so short.

SONNEBORN: ... and he -- I know, I know. I mean, people say everyone is killed early or late, but it's just, we noticed that. You know, we notice, you know, those that are killed in the first few days, or the tragedy somehow seems more profound if someone is killed in the last few days or the last weeks. I don't know statistically that, you know, casualties are any higher. But, no, I didn't really get any messages.

You know, I think in this war, which was so unpopular, a lot of vets told me, as I, you know, began to get really friendly with vets after 1988, that they wanted to go home and talk to the families of their buddies, but they were afraid to, because there was so much anger and mixed, you know, sentiment about the war.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Sonneborn, and she's the director of the movie "Regret to Inform," about women who lost their husbands in the war in Vietnam. And she is one of those women. The movie will be shown on most public television stations on January 24.

Had you talked with Jeff about the possibility of his dying in the war? Is that something you had tried to prepare yourselves for?

SONNEBORN: Well, he had tried to talk to me about it, and I hadn't really wanted -- I would just start to cry whenever he would bring it up. I mean, he had an Army insurance policy, and he told me, you know, that if something happened to him, he wanted some of that money to go to his brother, which of course I took care of. And, you know, those kinds of things.

But I -- you know, it was -- it seemed to me like bad luck to talk about it, you know. So, you know, I would just -- I would start to cry. I was just simply not, you know, able to discuss it rationally. He told my father that he didn't really think he was going to come back, that he had had a vision that he wasn't going to come back, and, you know, had told him, you know, that he just, you know, wanted to, you know, make sure that I was OK and my father would take care of everything.

But the one thing that he said to me again and again, and even though I didn't want to hear it, was that if something happened to him, he wanted me to have a really good life and get married and have a family and not live in the past. And I would -- you know, I hated at the time to hear that, but it was a real blessing to me how strongly he felt about that, and how deeply he conveyed that message to me.

GROSS: He gave you permission to have a life.

SONNEBORN: Yes, it did. I mean, I think that, you know, I was fortunate, I had -- I have a wonderful family, and I had a lot of support, both from his family and from my family and from so many friends who just provided a net of support. I mean, when someone you love dies, you know, someone you were very close to dies, I mean, for me it felt like a black hole in space, you know, a boundless hole of infinite blackness opened up. And love and support provided -- well, like I said, a net, so that you don't fall through that hole. And...

GROSS: Well, you were 24. This is a time in life when a lot of people are first getting married or just beginning to raise families. And you were a widow.

SONNEBORN: Yes, and I remember thinking a lot about the fact, How do you I do this? I mean, you're not supposed to be a widow when you're 24 years old. This is a role I never imagined playing in life. And I didn't know where to turn for support. I mean, the older women I knew who were widows were widowed when they were older. I didn't know anybody who had been widowed young.

And that was a period in my life, you know, where I think I was more of an existentialist, you know, than I probably am now, you know, when I was reading e.e. cummings and Sartre. And I remember e.e. cummings' poem about, "Life is no parenthesis," or -- I can't remember exactly how it goes, but I remember thinking that the one piece of life, the one piece of anything that Jeff and I would ever share was gone.

You know, and how do I go on and form my life and shape my life? And I wrote him a letter that went into his casket, a long letter. And, you know, now as a filmmaker and a writer, I wish I had a copy of that letter. But I remember telling him that if I didn't feel better in a year, I was going to join him. You know, which is something I would write at 24.

I'm not a suicidal kind of person, but my despair was very deep, and, you know, 198 -- '68 in the spring was a very dark time in our history. I mean, it was, you know, we were talking about using tactical nuclear weapons in the war. A month after Jeff was killed, Martin Luther King was killed. The Democratic Convention and the riots, Robert Kennedy being killed -- it felt like the end of the world was upon us.

And in my narrow little suffering space, it felt very much that way to me.

GROSS: Barbara Sonneborn is my guest, and she directed the film "Regret to Inform," about women whose husbands were killed in the war in Vietnam. She's one of the women who lost her husband in the war. She was 24 at the time. The film will be shown on most public television stations January 24.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Barbara Sonneborn, and she directed the film "Regret to Inform," about women whose husbands were killed in the war in Vietnam. She lost her husband in the war. And the movie will be shown on most public television stations January 24.

Did your husband enlist in the Army or was he drafted?

SONNEBORN: No, actually he -- we went to a state school, and he was in ROTC, which was the Reserve Officer Training Corps. You were required to do that. And then he signed up for the advanced ROTC, so that he would get graduate school paid for. He was going to be a lawyer, and he thought he would be able to finish law school and then go off somewhere like Germany, where we had troops at the time, to practice being a lawyer for three years to fulfill his military commitment.

GROSS: But how did he end up in Vietnam?

SONNEBORN: Well, he ended up in Vietnam because after we finished college in 1965, he thought he would go in right then, and his family and my family and I thought he should go to school. He started school, and he really didn't want to be there, so he stopped. And the Army caught up with him, and he was asked to go to Fort Benning, Georgia -- or assigned to go to Fort Benning, Georgia -- ordered, I guess, is the right word, in January of '67.

And then he went over to Vietnam in January -- on January 1 of 1968.

GROSS: Did you support the war in Vietnam? Did he support the war?

SONNEBORN: Well, I did not support the war in Vietnam, I would say, fairly early, like maybe 1964, I began to be against the war. And that commitment against the war grew, and it was a subject that we argued about. He felt that his country -- he felt, My country, right or wrong. He was going to defend his country. And we fought fairly bitterly about this.

And he also felt that he had signed up for this Army commitment, and that if he didn't fulfill that commitment, there was a place that was his, and someone else was going to go in that place. So he didn't feel right about that. I said, "Let's go to Canada, let's go to Europe," and he said, no, you know, he couldn't do that. If anything, he would have to go to jail. If he refused, he would go to jail, and he didn't think he could survive going to jail.

So at a certain point we stopped fighting. I mean, I knew that there was no possibility of my changing his mind. And even up until the end, I thought -- before he went, I thought, you know, Isn't there some way I could stop him? And he left from Travis Air Force Base, which is outside of San Francisco, and the last day we were driving -- I was driving our little Volkswagen that we had rented down Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. And I suddenly thought, I'll get into an accident. Not a bad accident, because I certainly didn't want to get killed, but a bad enough accident that, you know, we'd have a few scrapes and bruises and he wouldn't be able to leave.

But I couldn't do it, you know, I just felt -- you know, I didn't have either the strength of my conviction or the feeling that I had the right to stand in the way of his conviction, you know, enough to do something as serious as get into an accident.

GROSS: In your documentary about Vietnam War widows, "Regret to Inform," you play a couple of excerpts of a tape that your husband sent you from Vietnam before he died. And you say in the movie that it took you 20 years to listen to this tape. You didn't listen to it at all for 20 years?

SONNEBORN: I didn't. You know, it sort of surprises me, you know, when I say I didn't, it surprises me that I didn't. I got one tape from him before he died, maybe a couple of weeks before he died, and of course I listened to it the second I could tear the package open. The second tape came about a week after he died, and I couldn't bear the thought of listening to his voice.

And so, you know, I had it, I kept it with his letters. Those letters made their way into a box. You know, that box made its way onto a shelf. And, you know, I would think about listening to it, and I would think, Well, I'm going to listen to it on his birthday, or I'm going to listen to it on the anniversary of his death, or I'm going to listen to it whenever.

But I just couldn't stand the thought of hearing his voice. And I'm not the kind of person who pushes things away. I usually really look, you know, at things that are bothering me or troubling me or -- But I just let that sit there.

But I knew that I was going to have to listen to it, and I knew that the material was golden material in terms of -- for the film. And I thought, I'm asking all these other women to give me their letters, you know, to show me films or tapes. And, you know, how can I keep this, you know, in a closet?

So I, you know, basically brought it to Vietnam.

GROSS: Let me play an excerpt from that tape that you include in your movie. And this is your husband speaking to you on tape shortly before he died in Vietnam.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

JEFF GURVITZ: Just today there were four men walking through a rice field. We had a team out on a hill spotting for artillery. And they saw them. One of them was holding what could have been a weapon, or could have been a hoe or a rake or something else. From the distance you're at, it's hard to tell. And I know for myself, I can't see killing a man for holding a hoe or a rake. And if it was a weapon, why, I'd want to be damn sure before I killed him, damn sure.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: Barbara Sonneborn, what was your reaction when you heard this, after having had it for 20 years and not listened?

SONNEBORN: Well, listening to the whole tape was just overwhelming, because the first tape had been -- it had been before he had gone out into the field. And although it was filled with love and longing and fear, he hadn't actually experienced the war firsthand. So I just -- you know, I just sat there, you know, on this hillside, listening to his voice and listening to this young voice, this voice frozen at age 24.

And I also realized that I had been getting, you know, sort of similar kinds of things in letters, that this war that he had felt that he had to go off to, whether he believed in it or not, that he was deeply questioning it, and that he had, you know, profound questions about what we were doing there and the way the war was being fought, and what was happening, you know, to human beings as a result of, you know, not just of his being there but of our country being there.

And that just overwhelmed me, because although his very last letter, actually, is filled with disgust about the world and the meaning of the world -- it's a letter, really, quite filled with despair -- this story told me a lot about him, because I really believe, you know, although we hear many stories of atrocities, not everybody perpetrated those atrocities. And some men stood in the way of them. And they didn't happen anywhere and everywhere, but they happened in a lot of places.

I think that what he's telling me is that he was not going to kill anybody that he really didn't have to kill. And at that point, a lot of people were -- it wasn't out of -- because they just wanted to kill them, it was because they considered everybody to be the enemy. And anybody who might be an enemy might be shooting at them.

So, you know, this is how so many civilians, you know, got killed in Vietnam.

GROSS: Barbara Sonneborn's documentary, "Regret to Inform," will be shown on many public TV stations January 24. She'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Barbara Sonneborn, producer and director of the documentary "Regret to Inform," about American and Vietnamese women who were widowed by the war in Vietnam.

Sonneborn's husband, Jeff, was killed in battle in 1968 when she was 24. "Regret to Inform" will be shown on many public TV stations on January 24.

Sonneborn shot some of the film in Vietnam, where she interviewed Vietnamese war widows.

One of the things you did while you were in Vietnam was go to the place where your husband was killed. Did you know the exact spot it was, or just the general vicinity?

SONNEBORN: Well, after I started doing research to do this film in 1989, I went to the National Archives, and I got records that included where he was killed. And I sent for material. And what I ended up getting was -- what it was called, the Casualty Report. And in the Casualty Report, there is a map location as to the place of death, and a hill number in the area.

So my Vietnamese guides on the trip helped me find this exact location. And they really wanted to help me. So we ended up going to the place, the village, Hue Sanh (ph), which was right near where the 196th Light Infantry Brigade had their headquarters, and then we got into a jeep, and we went way out into the hills, you know, on these rutted roads that I -- I mean, I thought the Jeep would turn over.

And came to this little way station area, and they felt that this was as close to the spot as we could get, that it was just up this hill through the scrub, scrub that had once been jungle before Agent Orange had been sprayed there.

And, you know, there I was.

GROSS: What did you see?

SONNEBORN: And -- Well, what I saw, what was so striking to me -- you know, I had felt as I was writing, you know, from 1988 until I went in 1992, that somehow when we got to the place where Jeff was killed, like a water divining rod finding water, I would know the spot. And what was so striking was that it was just an ordinary hillside that didn't look any different than any other hillside.

I mean, I knew in my head that was going to be the case, but I didn't know that was going to be the case.

But what was also striking to me was, as I looked up the hillside I found it dissolving into battle, and I could see the battle take place, and I could see people being killed, and I could see explosions and I could hear screams. And then suddenly, in the same kind of flash as it came upon me, it was again just an ordinary hillside. And I could hear crickets and birds, and just the voices of other people around me.

So that was very strange. And it was strange to be there then as a director of a film. I was sorry that I hadn't gone -- had by myself and visited it all by myself, so I could have my own emotions rather than worry about what we were shooting with the camera.

GROSS: What do you feel it did for you to be in the spot where your husband was killed?

SONNEBORN: Well, I felt that it did provide some closure. And often we don't really know, you know, when we go looking for that, what it is. But I think it's -- there's an ancient need to be with those we love when they die. And if you can't be with those -- you know, if we can't be with them when they die, then at least, you know, to see that spot, to mark it, to put flowers there, or whatever -- to light incense, whatever, you know, your spiritual ritual might be.

So, you know, to be there put some closure on something that I wasn't even aware maybe didn't have closure. But it felt right, it felt that it was the right part -- right thing for me to do, you know, to do this journey and to go there.

The other thing that it -- you know, I had had this notion before I went to Vietnam that I would like to find a widow whose husband was killed in the same battle as Jeff was killed in. And there were battles every day there, and people were killed every day there, and it was an illusion to think that I could find someone who knew their, you know, loved one was killed on that day in that place, because it was a day of -- it was an area of very fierce fighting for many years.

So what I realized -- one of the many things I realized -- in Vietnam was the enormity of the ongoing suffering caused by the war.

GROSS: I know that you're married, and I'm wondering how long you've been married now?

SONNEBORN: I've been married 30 years.

GROSS: Oh. So...

SONNEBORN: My second husband -- I knew my second husband in college, and we dated in a period when Jeff and I were not dating. And we were very good friends. And he came around after Jeff was killed, and was just, you know, again, a wonderful friend. And he really wanted to get married. And we got married fairly early, as a lot of women did. But a lot of those women divorced six months, two years, later because the second husband couldn't deal with the pain that continues. I mean, pain doesn't just end just because you get married. I mean, I had nightmares for about eight years after Jeff was killed.

But Ron was my best friend, and he really helped me and made me laugh and supported me. And he, in fact, always said -- I did a lot of artwork back in the '70s, by the way, about Jeff's death, and then finished in about four years. And Ron always said, "You're going to do something bigger about Jeff's death in the war." And I said, "No, I'm done."

But, in fact, he was right, and he was always tremendously supportive of the project. He was willing to mortgage the house a couple of times to keep it going when the grants weren't coming in. And he is the co-producer on the film, and he's a terrific person, (inaudible).

GROSS: I guess they were friends too?

SONNEBORN: No, they knew each other, you know, they both were at the University of Illinois together, and then they actually were both at the same law school. But they weren't looking for each other to be friends.

GROSS: I was watching the movie, wondering how your husband felt about having your first husband be such a constant presence in your life, even now, decades after his death, you know, while you spent the better part of 10 years working on this movie about his death and about other war widows.

SONNEBORN: Yes. Well, let's say if I'd wanted to start this film, which I wouldn't have been capable of doing, two or three years after we were married, I think it would have been a big problem. But we were married 19 -- 18, 19 years when I started this project, and we have a very strong and solid marriage.

And this film and the project was not about my living with Jeff and bringing Jeff back, it was really a very -- a much deeper investigation into war and the story of Vietnam. And my own personal story I always saw as kind of a guide. And even though it was deeply personal for me to investigate my own story and the story of these other women, I don't think that it was -- it wasn't about a longing for the past. It wasn't about that. It was about, you know, this other thing, you know, that I said, it was about war.

It was about, why do we do the same thing that we've done, you know, since we crawled out of caves, you know, bashing each other's heads in with clubs? You know, why are we still doing that? Why haven't we learned, you know, that we don't want to throw our children at one another for, you know, our problems?

So Ron got that.

GROSS: My guest is Barbara Sonneborn, director of the documentary "Regret to Inform." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Barbara Sonneborn, director of the documentary "Regret to Inform," about women who were widowed by the war in Vietnam.

When your husband was sent to Vietnam, and you wanted him to either go to prison or go to Canada or just, like, not go, you say he wanted to go because he felt, My country, right or wrong, and he wanted to support his country the way his father fought in World War I. When Jeff died in Vietnam, and your feelings turned even more strongly against the war, did you feel at all that you were betraying him by opposing the war that he died in, and, you know, some people would feel that you were making his death more meaningless by opposing the war?

SONNEBORN: Well, that's a very interesting way to look at that. In fact, I felt more strongly that it was the right thing to do to oppose the war. It was so eminently clear to me at the moment he died, that he died in a war that should not have been happening, and I don't know the degree to which -- you know, I didn't listen to that tape for, you know, over 20 years, but I did have his letters. And his letters were filled with questions and sort of disgust about the war.

So, you know, I didn't feel that I was betraying him. I felt that I needed to do everything I could to fight against the war and to try to prevent other people from dying in war.

And in fact, in the month or so before he was killed, there was talk of the Paris peace talks beginning, and they spent the entire 19 -- year, 1968, talking about the shape of the table. And that made me crazy. I thought, How, when young people are dying every day, and, you know, civilians are dying every day, how can they be worrying about whether the table is going to be square or rectangular or a circle or oval or whatever it is they finally decided to do?

And I felt the disparity between those in power and those who go off to do the mission of those in power. And, you know, I felt I was doing the right thing. And actually, a year or so after Jeff was killed, when I was sort of beginning to see a little daylight, I went to work full time for the Moratorium in Washington, D.C., and worked through the year 1969 on the large marches, both the Moratorium, the New Mobilization marches, because I felt I would never be able to have a family of my own if I didn't feel I had dedicated myself to working to end the war. So...

GROSS: Did you have a family, do you have children?

SONNEBORN: I don't have children, no. I mean, I was very saddened at the time that Jeff was killed that I didn't, you know, have children with him, and his mother and father were devastated. I was devastated also, I mean, it was really -- you know, because it's so final.

GROSS: Yes.

SONNEBORN: You know, it was never going to happen.

GROSS: You got in touch with war widows from all sides of the war in Vietnam. How'd you find out who you were looking for?

SONNEBORN: Well, in the United States, it was difficult, because the war was not popular, and people were not looking to be found. And in a country that had maybe 250 or 240 million people in the late '60s, or, say through the period of the war, let's say there are 58,000 and some hundred names on the Wall, let's say maybe another 150,000 have committed suicide, many have died as a result of Agent Orange.

So even if we're looking at 200 and -- 200,000 killed, we're still looking relative to, you know, 250 million people.

So I sent out in late '90 and early '91 with, you know, the team that was working with me, we sent out thousands of public service announcements and flyers to women's health organizations and clinics and schools and ministers and mental health workers and veterans' organizations, looking for widows, you know, saying that I, a widow myself, was looking for widows. And we got one reply as a result of a public service announcement. We probably sent out 10,000 flyers.

So I was a little bit worried. And then the Gulf War broke out, and in fact, I protested the war. I had a lot of questions as to, you know, whether bombing a population was really going to solve the problem with Saddam Hussein. But I think what happened was that a lot of veterans and a lot of windows and family members who had lost loved ones in the war came out of the woodwork at the beginning of the Gulf War. And there were large marches in San Francisco. And I ended up being interviewed on television.

And people came out of the woodwork.

GROSS: I know that you're organizing war widows from America and Vietnam now and trying to bring many of them got in January, this month. What are you trying to do this month with the war widows? What are you organizing?

SONNEBORN: Well, for the National Public, you know, Television broadcast, we're doing a press tour. And when I was in Vietnam in 1992, I got this idea, based on what different widows said to me again and again, I would say at least half the women I interviewed in Vietnam said to me, We'd like to come to America and let Americans know what it's like to live in a -- you know, a place where war is happening. And the women said to me, I know that if we get together with women, other women who've lost loved ones in war, then we could really be a force for peace.

So I've had this idea sort of, you know, percolating for a while. And we thought, as we began thinking about publicity for the public television broadcast on POV, that if we could bring these women over, we would do that. And we decided to invite the North Vietnamese widow, who is a doctor, Dr. Win Mi Hianh (ph), and the woman in the film who is the translator and the core interview, Suan Yak Evans (ph), and then we invited Lula Baia (ph), who is a member of the Navajo Nation, and Norma Banks, who's the woman who tells the story about her husband dying a long, agonizing death as a result of Agent Orange -- and she's African-American -- and myself.

But in doing this, we formulated the idea of a network, and so we're calling it the International War Widows Memorial and Network for Peace, and we're creating a Web site to start this network for peace for women from all of the world to register and tell their stories. I mean, we look at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, and we walk up to it, and we can, you know, imagine touching a name and then hearing the story behind the name.

And this really will be an opportunity for people to tell their stories as -- about the person, you know, who died, and their hopes for, hopefully, a more peaceful future.

GROSS: Barbara, do you ever ask yourself, I wonder if Jeff knows that I've done this, that I've made this film?

SONNEBORN: Well, I -- sure. And there are times -- I mean, throughout the film, I've sort of felt his presence. And I remember feeling that in very good ways in dreams. But when I finished the film -- I mean, I would periodically, I mean, when I was really in debt, I would say, How did you let me get into this? You can't possibly leave me in this mess, you've got to help me out of this!

And at times when I was working on editing, and I was just in despair that the film would ever shape into something that really was good, I would say, I can't believe I've worked all these years, and this is going to be a piece of junk. You know, you have to help me, you have to help me get clear.

And when I was finished, it was a sunny August morning, and I walked out of the final mix, the final day of everything coming together, and it was a Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, and it was a beautiful blue-sky day. And I walked out and I looked up at the sky, and I just felt Jeff's face fill the sky with a big smile. And I felt wonderful. I felt, It's done, I did it. And I felt that I was doing it for him. I wanted -- I think early on, I wanted to transform his death into as powerful a statement against war as I could.

And I felt, Well, I've done my best, I've done what I can do. And, you know, I felt his beaming presence.

GROSS: Well, Barbara, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your movie, "Regret to Inform." Thank you.

SONNEBORN: Thank you, Terry, it's really been a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: Barbara Sonneborn's documentary, "Regret to Inform," will be shown on many public TV stations on January 24.

Here's another excerpt of the cassette her husband, Jeff, sent her from Vietnam shortly before he was killed.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "REGRET TO INFORM")

GURVITZ: Hey, I tried to tell you in my letters how detached I feel from the whole situation. It's as if I were -- it's as if I were a bystander at my own life, calmly watching myself do things that I never expected or desired to do, and merely marking time in a life which is too short to mark time in.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: Coming up, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a recording of one-act operas by Puccini.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Barbara Sonneborn
High: In her debut documentary, "Regret to Inform," filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn weaves together the stories of widows from both sides of the American-Vietnam War. Sonneborn is a war widow herself; her husband was killed in Vietnam in 1968. "Regret to Inform" will air on PBS later this month. It has already received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Documentary feature, and won the Best Director and Best Cinematography documentary awards at last year's Sundance Film Festival.
Spec: Movie Industry; War; Families; Awards; Women

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Exploring the Lives of Women Widowed by the Vietnam War

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 05, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 010502np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Review of `Il Trittico'
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: In spite of Puccini's great popularity, there are some works of his that are still not so well-known. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new recording of "Il Trittico," a group of three one-act operas that Lloyd feels contain some of Puccini's best music.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "IL TABARRO," GIACOMO PUCCINI)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC: Near the end of his career in 1918, Giacomo Puccini completed one of his most interesting projects, a group of three one-act operas called "Il Trittico," "The Tryptych." Though its world premier at the Metropolitan Opera had one of the most glittering casts of the golden age -- Geraldine Farrar, Claudio Muzio, and Giuseppe DeLuca -- it was not a big hit, and it's still uncommon to have all three parts performed together.

The opening opera, "Il Tabarro" -- "The Cloak" -- is a brooding drama of betrayal and bitter revenge. When a barge owner on the Seine discovers his wife is having an affair with one of his own stevedores, he kills his rival and hides his body under a cloak. The opera ends when he reveals the body to his horrified wife.

The music captures the flowing rhythms of the river. There are colorful minor characters too. Puccini has a group of dressmakers sing the opening bars of Mimi's first aria from "La Boheme."

But what raises the story above mere melodrama is Puccini's sympathy for the deep sense of hopelessness in the these characters, whose dreams of escape are impossible.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "IL TABARRO," GIACOMO PUCCINI)

SCHWARTZ: If "Il Tabarro" is the hell of Puccini's three-part Divine Comedy, its purgatory is the morbid and manipulative pseudoreligious soap opera, "Suor Angelica," "Sister Angelica," the story of a woman who's been forced into a convent to hide the shame of having an illegitimate child.

It ends with her suicide and a smarmy miracle. It's very well sung, though, on this new recording.

The most brilliant panel of "The Tryptych" is the last, "Gianni Schichi," which was suggested by Dante's brief mention of the title character in "The Inferno." It's a devilishly funny satire about family greed and hypocrisy.

The opera begins with the death of the wealthy Buozo D'Onatti (ph). His grieving relatives are gathered around his deathbed, worried about the rumor, which turns out to be true, that D'Onatti has left everything to a monastery. Rinuccio (ph), a young relation of D'Onatti's, is in love with Lareta (ph), the daughter of Gianni Schichi, a trickster, like Figaro, whom D'Onatti's disinherited heirs snobbishly regard as a peasant.

But Gianni Schichi is the only person clever enough to change D'Onatti's will before the authorities arrive, by pretending to be the dying D'Onatti himself. Then he double-crosses the greedy relatives by leaving all D'Onatti's fortune to himself.

The most famous aria, and one of Puccini's most beloved, is "O Mio Bambino Caro," in which Lareta tries to cajole her father to help her lover's family. Who could resist this melting rendition by soprano Angela Georgiu (ph)?

(AUDIO CLIP, "O MIO BAMBINO CARO" FROM "GIANNI SCHICHI," GIACOMO PUCCINI)

SCHWARTZ: It's good to have this new recording with its starry, though vocally uneven, cast, and despite some crude moments, like soprano Maria Gulegina's (ph) ear-piercing shriek at the end of "Il Tabarro."

(AUDIO CLIP, EAR-PIERCING SHRIEK, "IL TABARRO," GIACOMO PUCCINI)

SCHWARTZ: Antonio Pappano (ph), the new director of London's Royal Opera, conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with imagination and flair. And baritone Jose Van Damm is a captivating comedian as the conniving Gianni Schichi.

"Il Trittico" is an opera for people who both love and hate Puccini. This recording confirms the high place in Puccini's canon his most sophisticated conception deserves.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of "The Boston Phoenix." He reviewed a new recording of Puccini's "Il Trittico" on EMI.

FRESH AIR's senior producer today was Kathy Wolfe (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced by Naomi Person, Phyllis Myers, and Amy Salit, with Monique Nazareth and Patty Leswing. Research assistance from Brendan Noonam. Ann Marie Baldonado directed the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "IL TRITTICO," GIACOMO PUCCINI)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, Lloyd Schwartz
Guest:
High: Classical music Critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new recording of Puccini's "Il Trittico." Schwartz says this group of one-act operas contains some of Puccini's best music.
Spec: Music Industry; Entertainment; Puccini

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Review of `Il Trittico'
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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