In May (20-21) of 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh made history when he crossed the Atlantic in a small single-engine plane. He named his plane the "Spirit of Saint Louis" in honor of the city that supported his pioneering efforts. In addition to the 75th anniversary of Lindbergh's historic flight, this year marks the first centennial of his birth. Commemorations across the country include a re-creation of Lindbergh's transatlantic flight in a replica of his "Spirit of Saint Louis." In St. Louis, Missouri, the city that made Lindbergh's success possible, they also include performances of a new opera about the aviator's life.
"Loss of Eden", the new opera by composer Cary John Franklin and librettist Michael Albano, begins where many Lindbergh stories end: after the famous flight in 1927. Charles Lindbergh, is getting married to Anne Spencer Morrow, a shy and introspective woman who is to become his fellow aviator and author of best-selling books on flying.
"Loss of Eden" is scheduled to premiere on June 9th at the Opera Theater of St. Louis. Charles McKay is the general director of the opera. "We are always excited when we are able to explore an event in history through opera because it gives us an opportunity to conduct symposia and other things and especially to engage with younger audiences and new audiences for opera who might be curious about this historical figure and this amazing man who was really the first media star ever and whose life, of course, was touched by tragedy with the kidnapping of his child," he says. "And then, of course, he was surrounded in controversy through his acceptance of the (German) Third Reich, and then he managed to rehabilitate himself and became a real explorer and leader in modern aviation."
The grueling 33-hour solo flight across the Atlantic made Lindbergh an overnight celebrity. But only five years later, his life turned into a public tragedy when his 20-month-old son was kidnapped. Although he paid the requested ransom, the baby was not returned and his decomposed body was later found near Lindbergh's home. A home-made ladder, used to get into the second-floor nursery, and some of the retrieved ransom money linked the crime to illegal German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann.
Charles McKay says the opera is focused on the fateful intersection of the lives of Charles and Anne Lindbergh with those of Bruno and Anna Hauptmann. "It's really not an extravagant kind of grand opera in any way. It deals much more with the private side of Charles Lindbergh's life and that of his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh," he says.
The opera ends at the point where the Lindberghs decide to move abroad, just as Bruno Hauptmann gets executed.
Charles McKay suggests "Loss of Eden" should be viewed in conjunction with the current Lindbergh exhibit at the Missouri History Museum also in St. Louis. The exhibit features hundreds of memorabilia that Charles Lindbergh donated to the Missouri Historical Society. Among them are his flight suit and other aviation gear from his historic journey from New York and Paris. A cross-section replica of the Spirit of St. Louis cockpit interior helps visitors understand the challenges of the first transatlantic flight.
The original plane hangs in the Milestones of Flight gallery of the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
Benjamin Cawthra, the special project historian for the museum, says the exhibit looks at Charles Lindbergh as a cultural phenomenon of the 20th century. "People were listening to their radios in France and knew he was coming. He had no idea that he would get the kind of reception that he did. He thought he would just land and that would be it and he steps out of the plane -- there's thousands of people," he says. "How did that happen? Well, technology had advanced so quickly that you could do that sort of thing."
Benjamin Cawthra says the exhibit also covers some of the lesser-known aspects of Lindbergh's life: his research on a blood perfusion pump (that could replace a failing heart), his flirtations with Nazi Germany, his speeches smacking of racism and his conversion to the environmentalist cause. But he says most of all, the exhibit tries to make more people aware of Lindbergh's lifelong efforts towards placing American aviation on a sound footing, both commercially and technologically.
Historian Benjamin Cawthra and opera director Charles McKay say people of St. Louis were the first to understand Charles Lindbergh's pioneering genius. Now they hope the new opera and exhibit will remind people he was more than a famous aviator.