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In the opera Hercules, an ancient storyline about the struggle to return to civilian life resonates with today’s veterans.

By Sara Olkon
Photography by Jason Smith

In Handel’s opera Hercules, director Peter Sellars explores the suffering that soldiers bring home.

For military veterans like Stanley McCracken, a March 2 dress rehearsal of George Frideric Handel’s Hercules at the Lyric Opera of Chicago offered a new glimpse of their war experiences through an artistic lens.

McCracken, a Vietnam War veteran and a senior lecturer in the School of Social Service Administration, was among more than 125 vets who attended “War Follows Everyone Home,” a discussion presented by the Lyric, UChicago Arts, the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, A Safe Haven Foundation, and the McCormick Foundation.

Staged by director Peter Sellars, the 1744 opera explores timeless themes of war and homecoming in a modern setting. Sellars envisioned the production as a way to connect with today’s veterans through an ancient storyline, which Handel adapted from Sophocles’s 2,500-year-old play The Women of Trachis.

While watching the production, which depicts a war hero who feels disconnected from the life he left behind, McCracken could not help but think of his own experiences. “The warrior has been making life-and-death decisions and living very intensely,” said McCracken, an interpreter of Vietnamese for the US Army. He likened his own homecoming to science-fiction stories about space travelers who return home after a few months to find decades had passed.

Sellars hoped the intense emotions in Hercules would prompt such introspection and recollections that veterans may not have been able to express in other ways. “The Greeks were really good at talking about how when you come back from war, you’re changed,” Sellars said. “In the opera, Hercules is genuinely in anguish. The characters are in all kinds of states of denial—just as when the current wars’ vets come back, they and we don’t know how to talk about it.”

After the dress rehearsal, veterans, journalists, and Chicago scholars explored the issues in the opera. The panel included Michael Sullivan, Illinois director of the Student Veterans of America; University of Chicago trustee and Vietnam veteran Jack Fuller, who teaches in the University’s creative-writing program; and John Cacioppo, director of the University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. Pulitzer Prize–winning Chicago Tribune journalist Julia Keller, a visiting creative-writing professor and the author of Back Home, a novel narrated by a young girl whose father suffers a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, served as moderator.

Cacioppo described the deep grief that can follow veterans home from war. “Memories of these events change these soldiers and can haunt them at the most inexplicable moments, day and night,” Cacioppo wrote in an essay for the production. “It can leave soldiers feeling isolated and damaged at best, and broken beyond repair and unworthy of love at worst.”

The opera frames these issues with modern touches such as desert fatigues and detainees in hoods and orange jumpsuits. Hercules returns from battle broken and empty. He doesn’t know how to cope with normal life and eventually shuts down. He and his wife, Dejanira, argue bitterly, and he threatens her with violence. He abuses alcohol. The production ends with tragedy but also a note of hope, true to the complicated legacy of war.

After the dress-rehearsal curtain fell, many veterans in the audience rose to their feet and applauded. “I thought the opera did a good job capturing the sense of unreality experienced by Hercules,” McCracken said, “and the emotional distance experienced by Dejanira.”

During a private luncheon on the Chicago campus with veterans affiliated with the University, Sellars explained that he hoped his opera would serve as a “sort of DMZ,” a demilitarized zone, in which soldiers could feel safe from harm or judgment. “We all need a way to talk about stuff that is extremely painful,” Sellars said. “What does it mean to ‘come home’? The only way to survive in battle is to disconnect. But how does a soldier turn that off?”

The luncheon brought out anguished memories for some veterans. They spoke of being pelted with eggs by war protestors upon their return, or losing a spouse, or searching in vain for a renewed sense of purpose. “I didn’t want to come back,” said one veteran. “I felt like I was needed there.”

Keller, the moderator, perhaps captured the spirit of the panel discussion best when she evoked the closing lines of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window: “Weep, darling. Weep … and then, tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow.”

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