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An Iraq War Opera Finds A Vein Of Empathy

Actors onstage during a performance of <em>Fallujah</em>. The Long Beach Opera production is based on the combat experiences of a U.S. Marine in Iraq, and was co-written with an Iraqi-American.
Keith Ian Polakoff
Long Beach Opera
Actors onstage during a performance of Fallujah. The Long Beach Opera production is based on the combat experiences of a U.S. Marine in Iraq, and was co-written with an Iraqi-American.

Operas take on the grandest themes: love, violence, betrayal and battles. That's why Andreas Mitisek, the director of Long Beach Opera, became interested in staging a new opera set during the most recent Iraq war and its aftermath. This small, innovative company is known for site-specific work, so Mitisek decided to mount the world premiere of Fallujah at a National Guard Armory. A Humvee dominates the stage. The ushers wear military uniforms.

"Instead of sitting in a cushy theater and just being safe and going out for drinks, you are sitting on the floor of a drill hall where these people train to go to war," Mitisek explained shortly before a recent rehearsal in Long Beach. "So here, we're telling a story about their experience once they leave that hall."

Fallujah is based on the actual experiences of Christian Ellis, a trained opera singer who enlisted with the Marine Corps when he was 19 and became a machine gunner during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the 2004 battle of Falljuah, his platoon was ambushed and he lost one of his best friends. An IED fractured his spine. Ellis returned home with severe PTSD.

"I gave up on life. I tried killing myself," he says quietly.

Ellis says he tried to commit suicide four times. He became homeless. Quite literally, he says, he forgot how to sing.

"I forgot what notes were," he says. "I forgot how to breathe."

But in 2008, Ellis was invited to a fly fishing retreat for soldiers with PTSD. There, he met philanthropist Charlie Annenberg Weingarten, who decided to commission an opera based on Ellis' experiences.

Ellis' excitement soured a bit when he learned that an Iraqi-American had been hired to write the libretto. He flew to New York to meet Heather Raffo, whose acclaimed one-woman show Nine Parts of Desire had explored the experiences of Iraqi women after the first Gulf War.

"And she just had this way of calming me down naturally," he recalls. "Whether it was listening or asking the questions I didn't know how to answer but answered anyway."

Raffo and Ellis talked for days, sometimes for 10 hours at a time. I met the two of them, with composer Tobin Stokes, at a downtown Long Beach hotel room after an event at the local VA hospital. Singers had performed selections from the opera, and vet after vet had stood up to recount their own experiences. The three collaborators were still visibly moved by the experience.

As she prepared to write the libretto, Raffo interviewed dozens of veterans. She says hearing them talk about Iraqis and Iraq wasn't always easy, even given the context.

"It's brutal," she says. "It's brutal particularly right now, because almost all of my family is out of Iraq. It's not their home anymore: A hundred family members are down to four, and the rest are scattered all over the world. And I'm pissed."

I asked if Raffo had been apprehensive to hear stories about what the U.S. military had inflicted upon people who could have been her family. The playwright paused, and started to cry. Ellis immediately reached over to hold her hand.

"That was the hardest thing I had to do," Raffo says, her voice shaking. "I mean, spending a life in the theater, your job is to humanize."

But humanizing the U.S. military was just not something Raffo wanted to do.

"And then I knew that was wrong," she says. "I knew I had to. And I thought, this is my opportunity to be a better human being, and a better artist. And — to love."

Tobin Stokes says that when he was brought in, he asked Ellis for the iPod playlist of songs he'd listened to while gearing up for combat. The challenge was to take music that, he says, had been used to obliterate emotion, instead use it to amplify emotions. Stokes also employed what he calls "a stylized Middle Eastern music" — not meant to be authentic, but rather to evoke local sounds as heard through the ears of the Marines.

Long Beach Opera also brought in a few actual former servicemembers to train the singers and influence the production design. Michael Hebert and Jon Harguindeguy are part of a program called Awaken Arts, designed to help people who've been through traumatic experiences. They contributed concept art to the production — and over many rehearsals, Hebert showed the singers how to move through space as soldiers would, and how to handle their stage weapons.

Hebert says that while he wasn't a huge opera fan before getting involved with Fallujah, now he loves it. And when I asked how it felt to be part of the opera, he corrected me: "It's a part of me," he said firmly. "I'm not a part of it. This is a part of me."

Baritone Lamarcus Miller told me he'd barely given a thought to the issues faced by US veterans before being cast as Fallujah's main character, Lance Corporal Philip Houston.

"Until I got the role, I was completely oblivious," he confesses. But now he thinks about veterans with PTSD all the time. "You know, I'll walk down the street and Phillip will come into my head and say, 'I could kill them.' Or, 'I could snap his neck. They're sheep.'"

For Christian Ellis, it isn't necessarily cathartic to have an opera made about his experiences at war. Getting any new opera staged is a long and excruciating process, and Ellis says much of it felt personal. Still, he's been steadily healing. He's even started singing again, with the men's chorus in Phoenix, Ariz., where he lives. And he says it was incredibly meaningful to meet the singers who play him and his buddies.

"I'm a Marine — a combat marine," he says. "Now, I want to say, 'I sing opera.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.