Driven by forceful, melodramatic vocals, opera remains one of the most visceral art forms for communicating profound feelings and grand tragedy. The problem is, many classic traditional operas are based on quaintly archaic plays and corny, implausible stories that have little credibility or emotional resonance in this day and age.
But composer Tobin Stokes and librettist Heather Raffo’s new opera, Fallujah, is a rare modern work that invokes the operatic canon but is nonetheless powered by a compelling story that feels bracingly real and immediate. Presented by Long Beach Opera, the 80-minute, English-language piece received its world premiere over the weekend in an unusual, but tellingly appropriate, venue — the Army National Guard recruiting office in Long Beach.
The plot is based in large part on the experiences of Christian Ellis, a native of Phoenix who was among the U.S. Marines battling rebel forces in the blockaded city of Fallujah during a notoriously brutal siege in the Iraq War in 2004. Like many people in the military, he had to deal with severe depression once he returned home, and attempted to kill himself several times.
“It’s harder to survive at home than it was being over there,” Ellis, 33, said in an interview backstage before Sunday’s matinee. He grew up as an adopted orphan who was gay and artistic but without much of a sense of identity until he made it through boot camp and joined the Marines. Ellis listened to thrash metal on headphones before going into battle, but he was also a big opera fan and a former tenor.
In trying to resolve his suicidal impulses, Ellis wrote an early treatment about his experiences, which eventually led to him telling his story to Raffo, an Iraqi-American playwright whose father was born in Iraq. Raffo collaborated with Canadian composer Stokes to create Fallujah, which was commissioned by City Opera Vancouver.
“I had a different story, but Heather’s was more realistic, less Hollywood,” Ellis said.
Raffo called the process “an excavation of jewels in Christian’s life” in an effort to “make some sense of these intimate, vulnerable truths.” Later, in a post-performance discussion with the audience, she explained, “We’ve condensed a lifetime of Christian’s memories into a few lines of poetry. It’s fictionalized but rooted in fact.”
In the opera, a Marine named Philip (portrayed with brooding intensity by bass-baritone LaMarcus Miller) finds himself back in the States in a VA hospital. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Philip avoids the questions of his worried mom, Colleen (sung with a sterling radiance by LBO mainstay Suzan Hanson), even as he’s haunted by the deaths of a fellow Marine and an innocent Iraqi mother he killed.
Intriguingly, Raffo expanded Ellis’ story to include the experiences of Iraqi civilians who were caught in the crossfire instead of focusing only on the Marines’ point of view. “It starts as such a masculine story, but by the end it becomes more about the feminine characters,” Raffo explained. “Similarly, it starts as an American story that gets passed off to an Iraqi story.”
In creating the music, Stokes resisted the temptation to embellish things with overtly Middle Eastern flourishes. Instead, he said backstage that he was searching for “a vocabulary, a texture to draw in” the story.
“I’m using an Iraqi oud,” he told the crowd beforehand about the small chamber ensemble conducted by Kristof Van Grysperre. The musicians were ensconced at far stage right, partially hidden under a tentlike veil of camouflage netting. “Other than that, I wasn’t trying to document Iraqi music. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll hear [a little] rock music,” Stokes continued, adding that the middle ground was mainly classical.
While so many modern operas are little more than glorified song cycles, Stokes’ music is richly layered, such as a hauntingly beautiful passage sung by Hanson and soprano Ani Maldjian as disparate mothers whose piercing grief becomes inextricably intertwined.
Production designer Andreas Mitisek (also Long Beach Opera's artistic and general director) and video designer Hana S. Kim’s wall-size projections of vistas from the real city of Fallujah fill three sides of the gymlike recruiting center, which is rendered even more starkly effective by Dan Weingarten’s foreboding lighting design and the placement of a large military Humvee at stage left.
“What you’re looking at is what we saw,” Ellis told the crowd. “At a few performances, I nearly had to walk out. It brought back memories.”
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Afterward, several audience members were visibly moved and recounted how PTSD also affects the lives of millions of people who aren’t in the military. “PTSD is everywhere,” said consultant Michael Hebert, whose war-themed art was among the work displayed around the gym.
“It’s not just a military problem. It’s a societal problem,” added Kevin St. Clair, LBO’s associate director of engagement.
Of course, little of this would matter if Fallujah wasn’t such a startling and effective work of art. Stokes and Raffo’s collaboration shows that modern “opera can still be extraordinarily relevant,” as an opera singer in the crowd, Janna Baty, pointed out during the panel discussion.
Army National Guard, 854 E. Seventh St., Long Beach; Fri.-Sat., March 18-19, 8 p.m., and Sat.-Sun., March 19-20, 2:30 p.m. (Friday’s performance will be broadcast live on KCET); $67-$137. (562) 432-5934, longbeachopera.org.