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Oratorio Tackles The Issue Of Leaks From 'The Source'


The oratorio is a time-honored way for classical composers to tell a big story - "Handel’s Messiah," "Haydn’s Creation." Ted Hearne thinks so, too. And four years ago, he wrote an oratorio called "Katrina Ballads," which took on the aftermath of the hurricane. This week, his new work, "The Source," opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It takes on the story of Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks. Our Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: It was one of the biggest stories to come out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.


AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: In a military courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland, today...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A military judge has now sentenced Army Private Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's the harshest punishment ever in the U.S. for leaking to the media.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The intelligence analyst shared hundreds of thousands of documents with the website WikiLeaks...

LUNDEN: The day after sentencing, Manning announced that she was a transgendered woman and wished to be known as Chelsea. While the clash of the large public story and the intimate private story might make for a good opera, composer Ted Hearne decided it would work better as an oratorio.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Back to life, back to reality.

TED HEARNE: So instead of an opera where one story is being told continuously, the oratorio has movements that can relate to each other side-to-side.

LUNDEN: There was a lot to tell.

HEARNE: This piece, at its heart, I think, is about the insane amount of information that came out with the leaks of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. Hundreds of thousands of documents that were released to the public - how can the public possibly even begin to grapple with it because there's just so much of it? And I think that by setting some of these words to music we have an opportunity to look at them in a different light.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) One civilian killed in action, August 1, 2006.

LUNDEN: "The Source" is not only a musical oratorio. There's multimedia component, as well. Director Daniel Fish and videographer Jim Findlay filmed 100 people separately watching the same video of an Apache helicopter attack.

DANIEL FISH: We filmed each person for about 11 minutes. And we showed their responses projected on four screens that surround the audience and the performers.

LUNDEN: The singers will be placed in the audience itself while the musicians play behind a scrim. Ted Hearne's score bridges the world of pop, classical and hip-hop. There are samples of music and speech, and each singer is close-miked, and their voices are processed using auto-tune. In essence, they're singing duets with themselves.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Continuing concerns about Iran. Too unpredictable. And the status of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and a plea for better understanding of Pakistan's perspective. Can't trust President Karzai.

LUNDEN: Every word in the libretto for "The Source" either comes from the classified war logs or, says composer Ted Hearne, a series of Internet chats between Manning and a hacker.

HEARNE: She discussed a wide variety of topics, ranging from transparency in government secrecy to personal details. And in these logs you see portrait of someone who is grappling with their own identity and who seems to be at loose ends and very alone.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Living such an opaque life. Learned my lessons in tight rows. It's about securing the key, securing the key, how safe you keep your private key.

LUNDEN: The score juxtaposes personal reflections with mundane bureaucratic documents, right next to horrific descriptions of carnage.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing). Unknown house. Unknown religious sect of victim. Unknown sect of neighborhood the body was found in. Unknown - victim showed signs of torture.

LUNDEN: Music director Nathan Koci says Hearne presents highly controversial material without making any value judgments.

NATHAN KOCI: It doesn't say are we better off for it? It doesn't say are we worse off for? I appreciate that it focuses on Manning, who is such a complex human that had some really strong convictions about what she did. I feel like it shines a little more light on it for a small period of time. And hopefully we'll go think about it more.

LUNDEN: And "The Source's" creators hope audiences will think about it beyond the show's relatively brief run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.