Long Beach Opera Returns to the Battlefield

Jim Farber on March 1, 2016
The cast and creative team of Fallujah: composer Tobin Stokes (front row, second from left), Christian Ellis (third) and LBO Artistic Director Andreas Mitiszek (fourth); Heather Raffo, librettist (middle row, third from right); baritone LaMarcus Miller (top row, second from right)

A Vietnam-era vet in tattered olive fatigues covered with regimental patches slumps in a wheelchair. Exhausted, he is illuminated by the vast panorama of a blood-red sunset. This scene, however, is not what you might suspect. The noble crippled warrior is not a disabled Vietnam War veteran. He is war-weary Ulysses struggling to find his way home to the wife and world he left behind, the Homeric hero of Long Beach Opera’s 1983 production of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland) as directed by Christopher Alden.

Of the performance, Martin Bernheimer (then music critic for the Los Angeles Times) wrote, “While other organizations in the area concentrate on sure-fire Verdi and Puccini or lazy musical comedies, Michael Milenski and his intrepid little company serve the worthy cause of esoterica. They serve it diligently, and with a modern theatrical vengeance.”

On March 12, Long Beach Opera will return its focus to the lingering trauma of war when it presents the world premiere of Fallujah, by Iraqi-American librettist, Heather Raffo, and Canadian composer, Tobin Stokes.

First workshopped in 2012 by City Opera, Vancouver, Fallujah is based on the combat experiences and post-combat suicide attempts by USMC Sergeant Christian Ellis, who was devastatingly wounded during the bloodiest days of the Iraq war— the second battle of Fallujah, in 2004.

It is an opera that is meant to deal with hard truths, foster healing, and open a dialogue about the lingering devastation of PTSD— post traumatic stress disorder. It is an of-the-moment story set against the grim statistic that, at this point, more American soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have died from suicide than in combat.

“When we presented John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer in 2014,” says Long Beach Opera’s Artistic and General Director, Andreas Mitisek, “we thought it dealt with subjects that people should have a conversation about, even though they might not want to. The Iraq war and PTSD is the same. Presenting Fallujah gives us a chance to open that kind of a dialogue because the opera reflects the devastating experiences of many people— Americans and Iraqis. It’s about the losses on both sides.”

In keeping with Long Beach Opera’s dedication to setting its productions in appropriately provocative settings, Fallujah will not be presented in a traditional theatrical setting. Instead, the 90-minute, one act production will unfold within the confines of the still-in-use Long Beach National Guard Armory with an open Q&A to follow each of the seven performances.

Long Beach National Guard Armory

“Performing Fallujah in a place where soldiers are drilled that may yet be placed in harm’s way, is sure to add a unique context,” Mitisek observes. “That’s something Long Beach Opera specializes in. Our stage design will also incorporate a montage of projected artwork by two Iraq war veterans (and PTSD sufferers): Jon Harguindeguy and Michael Herbert based on their impressions and memories.”

From the time of its inception, Fallujah has been as much about the healing process as the operatic process. It was born out of a therapeutic retreat for vets organized by Explore.org, a philanthropic media organization that is a division of the Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation. It was at this Idaho retreat (during which the soldiers were taught to trout fish) that philanthropist Charles Annenberg met Christian Ellis. Annenberg was impressed and deeply moved by the fact that the former Marine had been trained as a classical singer before joining the military and had written the initial treatment for an opera based on his experiences.

Through a series of connections, City Opera, Vancouver and its conductor and artistic director, Charles Barber were made aware of the project and made the decision to produce a workshop. The next important decision was the selection of Stokes and Raffo to create the score and libretto. Each consulted with Ellis. And each came away from the encounter with insights that added depth and dimension to the work.

“The last thing I wanted to do with this score was create some kind of pastiche,” Stokes said, speaking from his home in Canada. “I got to know something about Middle Eastern music, but more importantly, I got some really useful ideas from asking Christian to share the music he’d kept on his iPod during the time he was in combat. One that really struck me was an adrenaline-filled, thrash metal song called ‘Bodies’ by Drowning Pool. I wanted to bring that type of musical energy and intensity into the opera because that’s the music these guys were listening to.”

In fact, it was a perfect synergy for Stokes, who began his musical career as a hard rock drummer. He incorporated an electric guitar, electric bass, and drum set into the score. Then, to supply a diametrically opposite timbre, he composed music for the classic, Middle Eastern stringed instrument, the oud.

Being of Iraqi-American descent, Heather Raffo brought a unique cultural perspective to the opera. Her work relies deeply on research, as demonstrated in her groundbreaking, one-woman play, 9 Parts of Desire based on 10 years of interviews with Iraqi women. The play (which she starred in) premiered in August, 2003 at the Travers Theatre in Edinburgh, and had its off-Broadway debut in 2004 at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. It was not, as Raffo recalls, an easy sell.

“Initially I couldn’t get anyone to produce it or even do a reading” she said, speaking from her home in New York City. “When it finally was produced off-Broadway, it got great reviews and played for nine months. This was during the Bush era. I found myself speaking to State Department officials and card-carrying Republicans who loved the show. ‘Thank you for speaking such truths,’ they told me. People were hungry for information. That’s the kind of truth I wanted to bring to this opera.”

When Raffo was first approached to write the libretto for Fallujah, she said she would only consider the project if she were given the chance to get to know Ellis.

“I spent a week with Christian,” Raffo remembers. “Even though I’m blond, was born in Michigan, and my family are Christians (originally from the ancient city of Mosul), his perception was that he was meeting an Iraqi woman. And the same was true from my end. We both had our guard up and needed to disarm.”

Fallujah promo art

Over the course of that week Ellis opened up to Raffo. He shared with her the conflicts he felt growing up as an adopted child, his horrible experiences as a Marine machine-gunner during the second battle of Fallujah, his struggles with PTSD, and his four attempts at suicide.

“Christian’s initial script for the opera was about a soldier who dies in Fallujah trying to save a young boy,” Raffo explained. “It didn’t ring true to me. It was the Hollywood version. I wanted to base the opera on this real guy, about how it’s actually harder to return from war.”

Raffo also saw in the story an important theme about the difficult relationships between mothers and sons — an American soldier who is an orphan, and a young boy who comes to represent the orphans of Iraq.

“Do you realize that 50 percent of the children in Iraq today are orphans?” Raffo asked, emphatically. “We orphaned that country. And those orphans are the new, radical fighters that are joining with ISIS.”

In the upcoming premiere, baritone LaMarcus Miller will sing the role of Marine Phillip Houston, who is on 72-hour suicide watch after trying to kill himself for the third time. It’s a role that Miller says he could have easily found himself playing for real.

“When I first sang the role in the 2014 workshop production at the Kennedy Center,” Miller said, “I felt an immediate connection to the character. My mother and uncle are both Navy veterans and many of my friends are vets. In high school, I was in the Junior ROTC and was planning to go into the military. Instead, I made this amazing decision to sing opera. Had things gone differently, I could have been Phillip.”

Miller has seen the opera change a great deal since those early productions.

“When I first got the piece,” he said, “it was much more melodic. Now it’s a lot more angular reflecting the conflict in Phillip’s mind. One moment he’s singing this beautiful legato line, the next he’s screaming because of something he’s remembered.”

Long Beach Opera veteran mezzo-soprano Suzan Hanson, will be playing the role of Phillip’s adoptive mother, Colleen, who desperately wants to help, but is rejected.

“The crux of my character,” she said during a rehearsal, “is that of a mother who is desperate to find in this shattered man, the son she knew before he became a Marine. Fallujah is truly an opera of the moment that requires a different level of truthful vulnerability. It doesn’t have the type of emotional distance you get singing Puccini. But that’s what you expect working with Long Beach Opera. It’s all about being in the moment and asking the hard questions.”

Long Bach Opera’s production of Fallujah will be performed at 8 p.m. March 12, 17, 18 and 19; 2:30 p.m. March 13, 19 and 20 at the Army National Guard Armory, 854 E. 7th Street, Long Beach. Tickets: $67-$137. For information: (562) 432-5934 and at longbeachopera.org.