Photo by Scott Koen, Captain of the Baylander.

By Margo Lemberger

A Navy ship that was once called “the world’s smallest aircraft carrier” is docked at the West Harlem Piers at 125th Street. It serves as the perfect stage for an Upper West Side opera company to put on a show about the life of a P.O.W.

Opera Upper West’s mission is to take opera from the concert hall to the common man.

Described by Artistic Director Alexandra Fees as “immersive opera theatre [whose] productions are site-specific based on the theme of each show,” OUW is not your classic opera experience. The company once performed Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro as a real-time wedding in a Presbyterian church.

Now in its third season, OUW is preparing to mount Tom Cipullo’s celebrated contemporary piece Glory Denied as part of New York Opera Fest 2017, sponsored by New York Opera Alliance.

Baritone Adam Cannedy playing Colonel Jim Thompson in a recent preview of the concert (not held on the ship). Photo by Noah Stern Weber.

Glory Denied sets to music the true story of Jim Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, and how the aftermath of his release and his experiences in Vietnam affected his relationships stateside. It’s based on a 2001 book by Tom Philpott. You can see an interview with Philpott here.

Fees says of the timing, “Opera Upper West intended to present Glory Denied… as America’s identity began to shift at the end of 2016. Many feelings arising in the USA are reminiscent of the 1960s and ‘70s: a sense of distrust in the government, protest surrounding racism and sexism in America, and uncertainty about America’s place in the world.”

Logistically, the timing could not have worked out better. Performing the piece on the Baylander is the perfect melding of art and history. First used in 1968 during the Vietnam War, the ship was decommissioned in 2011 and saved from scrap by a private buyer. Its 2016 relocation to West Harlem Piers from the Brooklyn Bridge Park Marina made for a perfect fit for OUW, and the entire evening is designed to transport the audience back to the era of the action.

Production designer Ava I-Wen Huang recently posted a short video as she tested some projections on the boat’s windows.

Testing projection on the ship ⛴

A post shared by Ava I-Wen Huang (@ava_huang329) on

“It’s important to us to allow the audience to have time to mingle and discuss the work being presented,” Fees says. “Starting at 7:30pm each performance day, we will be hosting a 1960’s social on the Flight Deck of the Baylander while watching the sunset! The opera begins on the Jungle Deck at approximately 8:30pm.”

Glory Denied runs June 2nd, 3rd , 9th and 10th, with tickets ranging from $30 – $45. Get tickets here.

We previously published an in-depth piece on the Baylander, with photos of the ship during Vietnam.

ART, NEWS | 3 comments | permalink
    1. Jerry Raymond says:

      Not that it detracts from this opera, but, wasn’t the longest held POW Jack Downey, who was shot down over China during the Korean war and was not released until the early 1970s?

      • sputnik says:

        Jerry, your question piqued my interest so I looked up the obits of both men in the NYT. You appear to be right about Downey. But what’s weird is that the Times refers to BOTH men as “the longest serving American prisoner of war” (Downey was a POW for 20 years and Thompson, nine). Here are excerpts from the obits, with links to full articles:

        NYT, July 2002 – “Col. Floyd J. Thompson, who for almost nine years endured cold cells, jungle cages and torture in Vietnam, becoming the longest-serving American prisoner of war in any conflict, died on Tuesday …”


        NYT, Nov 2014 – “John T. Downey, a former C.I.A. agent who became the longest-serving American prisoner of war by surviving more than 20 years in Chinese prisons after he was shot down over Manchuria in 1952, died on Monday …”


        Go figure… And by the way, it appears they were both released the same year, 1973.

        • Tom Philpott says:

          How about that!

          I wrote the book Glory Denied about Colonel Floyd ‘Jim’ Thompson, from which Tom Cipullo wrote this wonderful opera. But until this afternoon, when I read Jerry Raymond’s and sputnik’s postings here, with links to the 2014 NYT story, I had never heard of the two CIA agents held captive for so long (19 and 20 years) by the Chinese government.

          Thank you, gentleman. Two more extraordinary American patriots to recognize and celebrate. — Tom Philpott