An Iraq War Opera Finds A Vein Of Empathy

Mar 18, 2016
Originally published on March 18, 2016 6:29 pm

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.'"

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A new opera tells the story of those who fought in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004. It's got all of opera's classic themes - love, passion and violence. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The opera begins in a VA hospital. The main character sits facing the door. He's a vet on suicide watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KALEB COICOU: (As Philip Houston, singing) Nothing hurts, too dangerous to be alive, dangerous to be outside when nothing hurts.

CHRISTIAN ELLIS: The opening scene was a real reality for me.

ULABY: That's Christian Ellis who inspired this opera called simply "Fallujah." That's where he lost some buddies back in 2004 and where a roadside bomb fractured his spine. When Ellis got home, he was physically OK, but he was still wounded.

ELLIS: I gave up on life. I tried killing myself.

ULABY: Four times. Ellis had lost who he was. Before he'd enlisted in the Marines, Ellis had studied opera.

ELLIS: I literally forgot how to sing. I forgot what notes were. I forgot how to breathe.

ULABY: Ellis was homeless for a while. In 2008, he was invited to a retreat for soldiers with PTSD. There he met a philanthropist who decided to commission an opera based on his experiences, but Ellis' joy soon turned sour. He recalls his thoughts when he learned an Iraqi-American had been hired to write the libretto.

ELLIS: I know she's not the enemy, but I just - I can't put that to rest.

ULABY: Now he's sitting right next to the playwright, Heather Raffo. Before getting this commission, Raffo had already created a one-woman show about Iraq after the first Gulf War. When Ellis met Raffo, he said he had no idea what to expect.

ELLIS: And then she just had this way of calming me down naturally, whether it was listening or asking the questions that I didn't know how to answer, but I answered anyway.

ULABY: Their first conversation lasted 10 hours, and Raffo started interviewing other Iraq war veterans. Hearing their stories, though, was not easy.

HEATHER RAFFO: Because almost all my family's out of Iraq. It's not their home anymore. So a hundred family members are down to four and the rest are scattered across the world and I'm pissed.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "FALLUJAH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Now they shoot anyone walking, anyone breathing...

ULABY: With composer Tobin Stokes, Raffo crafted an opera with multiple points of view, Iraqis and Americans. I wondered if she'd worried when talking to Marines about hearing what they'd done to people who could've been her family. The playwright began to cry. Christian Ellis reached over to hold her hand.

RAFFO: This was the hardest thing I had to do. I didn't know if I should do it. I mean, spending a life in the theater, your job is to humanize.

ULABY: But Raffo did not at first want to humanize the U.S. military.

RAFFO: I refused to, and then I knew that that was wrong. I knew I had to, and I thought this is my opportunity to be a better human being and to be a better artist and to love.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "FALLUJAH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Man up. It's clear the whole of Fallujah, door to door...

ELLIS: You know, there are some scenes in the opera that I just - it never in a million years dawned on me that when we are getting ready to do our push, what would they be thinking about?

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "FALLUJAH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing) Half the city, carrying their homes on their back.

ULABY: Over the course of working on this opera, the Iraqi-American librettist says she was surprised by how much she ended up connecting with vets.

RAFFO: As soon as I get with them, we're talking about the reality; we're talking about how hard it is. Like, they're the only other people in America that actually get it.

ULABY: The Long Beach Opera recruited vets for production accuracy and even to help with design.

MICHAEL HEBERT: This is how they teach you at boot camp. They shove it in your elbow and then they - nice and tight. It's got to be right in the cup of your shoulder.

ULABY: Iraq War vet Michael Hebert is teaching singers who play Marines how to hold their weapons.

HEBERT: There you go.

ULABY: He was in combat in Fallujah, and he corrected me when I asked how it feels to be part of this opera.

HEBERT: It's a part of me. I'm not a part of this; this is a part of me.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "FALLUJAH")

LAMARCUS MILLER: (As Philip Houston, singing) It takes 10 minutes to get permission to kill a hadji holding an RPG.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Forget it, Houston.

ULABY: The main character, Lance Cpl. Philip Houston, is played by Lamarcus Miller.

MILLER: Until I got the role, I was completely oblivious and completely ignorant that this was even an issue.

ULABY: Now Miller thinks about veterans with PTSD all the time.

MILLER: I'll walk down the street and Philip will come into my head and say, I could kill them or I could snap his neck. They're sheep.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "FALLUJAH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) He might be wounded.

MILLER: (As Philip Houston, singing) He might be loaded.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) He's a boy.

ULABY: You would think it be cathartic to have an opera about your experiences at war, but getting "Fallujah" staged has been a long and excruciating process for Christian Ellis, and he was fearful this production might dredge up old feelings.

ELLIS: I spent these years getting over this, and the next thing I know this is happening again. I don't want to go through that pain. I barely survived it. I mean, I barely survived it.

ULABY: He did. Recently, he has started singing again, really singing. Ellis tried out for a men's choir in Phoenix, Ariz., where he lives, and he got in. And Ellis was blown away just a few weeks ago when he met the opera singers who play him and his buddies.

ELLIS: They kept asking me, why don't you sing? You know, you should sing. You know, we know people in Phoenix. We can help you get a voice teacher. And just that fast, that little spark came back, and I felt excited again, motivated. Though I'm not serving anymore, to me that can give me that purpose that I was looking for.

ULABY: One of the hardest things for Ellis since coming home was losing part of his identity as a fighter.

ELLIS: For a while, it's - I'm a Marine. I'm a combat Marine. Now it's - I want to say I sing opera (laughter).

ULABY: "Fallujah" closes at the Long Beach Opera this weekend, but you can watch it online or on the Dish Network this evening. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.