Timothy Nelson on his father’s return from the Vietnam War: ‘It changed the essence of his humanity forever’

The director and conductor shares the personal origin of IN Series' new opera, 'The Return of Ulysses – Song of My Father.' 

By Timothy Nelson, IN Series artistic director

My father and I have always had a very open relationship, one where we were comfortable talking about almost anything, and indeed conversation early in the morning when no one else was awake, or late at night when everyone else was asleep, remains a staple of our relationship. Still, there was one topic that was always left unmentioned, and was clearly off limits throughout my childhood. This was his time serving as an enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from March 1967 to March 1968, including the first months of the Tet Offensive, stationed in Ankhe. He had enlisted with the full knowledge that he would most certainly be drafted regardless. The particulars of what he experienced while there I will never know, only that they changed the essence of his humanity forever. When he retired from work in 2009, he, like many Vietnam veterans of his generation, began to experience the long-reaching impacts of the trauma of war — the symptoms of PTSD in its myriad forms, and the wreckage of moral injury incurred. By this time, I was living in Europe and working as a director and conductor. I was not present for the years of deep work and courage he mustered to step into the light of healing.

Timothy Nelson with his father in Vietnam in 2018, photo courtesy of Timothy Nelson.

I had the profound privilege to travel with him back to Vietnam in 2018, just months before I moved to Washington, DC, and became artistic director of IN Series. He, like many of his brethren, sought a sort of healing, peace, that could come only from returning to that soil where they sacrificed something fundamental when there were merely more than boys. Seeing him interact with those other veterans, and come alive with a language of absolute understanding, was profoundly beautiful. It revealed a father I never got to meet, that had been a price paid for America’s war effort. What also began there in the green fields of Vietnam was the desire to find a way to be indirectly, and yet deeply, in conversation about his Vietnam experience — how it changed everything for him just as it changed everything for our country. The fruit of that journey, some six years in the making, is IN Series’ current production, The Return of UlyssesSong of My Father.

2024 marks the 60th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the start of official American action in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. It is an important marker, but one that is receiving little to no mention in a current cultural conversation that ironically mirrors much of the social and generational unrest of that time. Seeing this on the horizon and being in the midst of a multi-year project to stage the three extant operas by Claudio Monteverdi, widely considered the inventor of opera, IN Series set about to present Monteverdi’s second extant stage work – Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (“The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland”) in the vernacular of the Vietnam era. Monteverdi wrote this epic opera in 1640, as the first of his works presented in the nascent opera theaters of Venice, which would in actuality give rise to the form opera took throughout Europe in the centuries ever since. Uniquely, Monteverdi chose as his subject the second great epic poem of Homer, “The Odyssey,” and more particularly the hero’s homecoming. Instead of focusing on the more well-known exploits of cyclops, sirens, or island witches, the opera is about a soldier come home to a place that is no longer able to recognize him, and his struggle to navigate trauma and reintegrate with his society. It is painful, pertinent, and prescient.

In the early 2000s, Veterans Administration psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay published a book titled Odysseus in America, which looks at the homecoming experience of U.S. servicemen from Vietnam through the prism of Homer’s poem, almost 3,000 years old. This book became the intellectual primer for the current project. IN Series performs most often in English, and particularly with this story it seemed essential that it be told in not only the vernacular of an American audience but in the vernacular of the Vietnam-conflict era. Over two years, I worked with my father to record audio diaries detailing his experience at war and coming home. Finally, a storytelling that was not possible directly became freely possible in service of art making — and in turn, the art making became in service of a story that needed to be told between father and son. These audio diaries became the source for a new English text set to Monteverdi’s music (the reverse of how an opera is usually made), one that tells Homer’s story with the language of the Vietnam experience.

Photo courtesy of Timothy Nelson from his father’s time in Vietnam.

It is important to note though that the Vietnam conflict already has its own sort of epic poem, one composed by many bards across a number of years and geographies. In their book We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, authors Doug Bradley and Craig Werner detail how Vietnam is perhaps the one war that can rightly and almost fully be understood through the music and poetry of its songs. In recognizing this, the new English text of The Return of UlyssesSong of My Father also folds in lyrics from the songs of Bob Dylan, John Denver, Peter, Paul and Mary, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Righteous Brothers, and many other artists of those times. Interpolated into the score is also music by Donovan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and R.B. Greaves performed in new arrangements inspired by Monteverdi’s own madrigal style of composition.

IN Series artistic director Timothy Nelson. Photo by Todd Franson/Metro Weekly.

For nearly a year, I went each day to walk the length of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Wall, as a way of at least centering myself in the weight of something I could never actually understand in any meaningfully true personal way. Each time, I would pause at the slab of polished granite labeled 22E, where the names of men my father lost bring him to his knees and to tears each time he makes a visit, a pilgrimage really, to that most hallowed ground. I chose to give this production the additional title Song of My Father. It is personal acknowledgement that is uncomfortable for me, perhaps a little embarrassing. However, it is something fundamental about this current IN Series production that I needed to have in the fore. This work, which is beautiful and moving I hope, is really much more than that. It is theater making that allowed me to talk finally with my father about the most important thing that ever happened to him, to understand something essential about him, and maybe in turn something about myself. And more, it was a way, perhaps the only way when approaching something so awesome as to be ineffable, to finally say thank you for your service and welcome home.

IN Series’ production of The Return of Ulysses – Song of My Father plays through May 27, 2024, at the Source Theater, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. It will also play May 31 to June 2, 2024, at the Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets are $30–$65. All tickets for veterans are $30. Tickets for Vietnam veterans are free, as are all tickets for veterans for the May 27 performance. DC tickets are available online here. Baltimore tickets are available online here. 

Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission.

The digital program for The Return of Ulysses is available here.

SEE ALSO:
IN Series’ brilliant ‘Return of Ulysses’ sings of veterans’ homecoming (review by Bob Ashby, May 14, 2024)

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