Long Beach Opera made history last weekend with the world premiere of Fallujah, the first opera written about the Iraq War. The opera takes place during fictional Marine Phillip Houston’s 72 hours in a VA Hospital after his third suicide attempt. During that time, he recalls the trauma of combat.
The story is based on the real-life experiences of USMC Sergeant (Ret.) Christian Ellis, who saw combat during the two battles for Fallujah in 2004 and has survived four suicide attempts. As a form of therapy Ellis, who is an opera fan and singer, developed the storyline and connected with New York playwright and librettist Heather Raffo.
“I had a really strong personal connection to what he was talking about which was, how hard it is to come home,” Raffo said. “How hard it is to experience violence and trauma and that is something that I knew pretty intensely from having so many Iraqi family members and from looking at the war from their point of view for so many decades.”
Raffo, who is of Iraqi descent, said it took a “great leap of faith” for her and Christian to agree to meet up.
“Once we did, it was apparent very quickly that we trusted each other and that trust was going to lead to really intense and intimate conversations,” said Raffo.
When the libretto was completed, composer Tobin Stokes took on the task of writing the music.
“I saw a very moving story, a very edgy era and a unique opportunity to really explore both sides of the situation,” Stokes said.
Since then, Fallujah has been through several years of development and was completed in 2012. It was supposed to premiere in Vancouver that same year, but was canceled due to financial constraints. When Long Beach Opera picked it up and planned to stage it at the Army National Guard Armory, Christian was resistant at first.
“In my mind, I had this idea of a grand opulent opera house so that’s what I was expecting. I didn’t see that,” he said. “But then when I got here, it blew my mind.”
The armory near downtown Long Beach is an unconventional space for an opera, but it was an important choice for Andreas Mitisek, Artistic and General Director at Long Beach Opera.
“I wanted to find a space that would provide relevance,” Mitisek said of the drill hall of the National Guard. “[We wanted to transform] it into a space that would really tell the story and really bring the audience into it.”
The armory drill hall provides a unique setting for the opera. The stage is custom-built with multiple screens to project a backdrop on and a real humvee that sits on the side of it is used in the production. The projections range from still images, video and artwork from veterans Jon Harguindeguy and Michael Herbert.
“What was also important for me was to tell the story with the voices of the veteran artists,” said Mitisek.
Along with dynamic set design and music that integrates the sounds of Fallujah with a combination of Iraqi music, rock music and the human voice, Ellis was convinced that the opera will convey the story he set out to tell.
“[While watching] I had these memories that for me, literally and figuratively took my breath away,” he said. “I was not expecting it to be that authentic.”
He and Raffo hope that Fallujah will create a “national conversation” about the trauma of war and the life of a veteran that hasn’t been told through documentary, film, play, etc.
“When you hear there are 22 veterans a day trying to kill themselves, do you really care?” he said. “From a veteran’s point of view, I would say, ‘No you really don’t.’ Because you don’t understand. This you will understand.”
Fallujah is playing at the Army National Guard Armory in Long Beach until March 20 and stars LeMarcus Miller as Philip Houston. KCET Link Media Group will be live streaming the performance on March 18 on KCET Public Television for Southern California and Link TV. Live broadcast will also be streamed on KCET.org/Fallujah and LinkTV.org/Fallujah. To see the performance live, get tickets here.
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