Opera gives dramatic insight into wounded soldiers lives

click to enlarge Opera gives dramatic insight into wounded soldiers lives
(Submitted photo)
“The Falling and Rising,” a new opera being performed by the Arizona Opera, is based on the true stories of American military members and veterans.

When Tess Altiveros was debating whether to take on a new project at the Seattle Opera, the conductor, Michael Sakir, told her, “This opera will change your life.”

She took the job — performing as the central character in a new opera, “The Falling and the Rising,” roles which she and Sakir will reprise for the Arizona Opera Saturday, Oct. 22, to Sunday, Oct. 23, in Tucson.

“I will never forget him saying that and it did change my life,” Altiveros said. “It changed my perspective. It changed my understanding and made me sit up and pay attention to the fact that I had my own prejudices that I needed to deal with. Mostly, it enabled a path for dialogue with a group of people that I have never been able to sit across the table with and certainly not make art with. It changed my view on myself as a citizen and my view on this world.”

“The Falling and the Rising” is a five-person opera based on the true stories of American military service members and veterans who have been wounded in the line of duty. Conceived of by Army Staff Sgt. Ben Hilget, who was an opera singer before he enlisted, it took shape when he, Zach Redler and Jerre Dye visited the Walter Reed Medical Center to interview wounded soldiers. 

“The Falling and the Rising” breaks ground in its goals and its staging. Projections play an important role in the production. It is filled with humor — there are traditional opera singing deliveries of such lines as “You’d better get your ass in gear.”

Hilget says the opera aptly captures the sacrifices that modern service members make. He said he and the other opera creators were immediately floored by the stories that they heard when they started interviewing people at Walter Reed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard, to date, more powerful stories of resilience and strength,” Hilget says. 

One of the first interviewees was a specialist who had been in a coma after being thrown from a Humvee. He dreamt a life that he didn’t have and even six months after he woke up, he was still trying to figure out what was real and what was not.

“He gained the power of speech back through music therapy — he actually learned to sing before he could speak,” Hilget says. “He spoke with a profound wisdom for someone of his age and still in the middle of trauma.”

They spoke to so many people in a three-day period that he said they could have written 10 operas. 

Dennis Whitehead Darling had just finished serving as the inaugural McCleave Fellow in Directing at Opera Memphis, a fellowship designed to fostering the careers of directors of color, when he went to see Opera Memphis’ production of the opera.

“It’s quite beautiful and poignant and painful and emotional and rich with beautiful themes of sacrifice and pain,” Darling says.

He is now directing the Arizona Opera production. As someone who contemplated going into the military and whose father, uncle, brother and stepsister all served, this opera touches on his ties. He says he feels people get a better understanding of what it takes to serve in the military and the sacrifice, duty and honor involved.

“There are no live scenes of people being shot at, but it does deal with injury and that sort of falling that the soldier goes through emotionally and physically,” Darling says. 

“Then it’s about this wonderful triumph of the rising of how they somehow find this miraculous strength to overcome any sort of emotional or physical pain. It honors their sacrifice.”

Altiveros says the music and score are designed to attract civilians and soldiers. She describes it as accessible and melodic.

“It’s meant to help us appreciate and acknowledge the sacrifices that are made, the good parts and the bad parts about enlisting and the hardships of it,” Altiveros says. 

While not traditionally a subject of opera, the stories of sacrifice and injury translate well to the art form, Altiveros says.

“The stakes are so high — there is a risk of life and death and injury and things like that, but real human relationships are affected and in a very large way,” Altiveros says. 

“Anytime you can tell that story of human relationships on stage, it lends itself to opera. Opera can heighten that sense of emotion.”

She recently spoke with art producers who were concerned about whether this opera would be too heavy and traumatic for audiences who are stressed in a post-pandemic world. She was eager to allay those fears.

“It’s not that this does not address (traumatic) topics — the whole premise essentially is when a female soldier is hit in a roadside bombing, and they put her in a medically-induced coma. The entirety of the rest of the opera is her wandering through her subconscious and coming across these different soldiers’ stories,” Altiveros says. 

“That is the background for these stories to happen, but it’s meant to leave you feeling uplifted. It’s not a downer.”

Altiveros said she cries in almost every single rehearsal because she is so moved by the stories, and she is certain the audience will be moved too.

“But it’s not meant to traumatize,” Altiveros said. “It’s meant to leave you feeling really hopeful about and grateful for the work that our soldiers are doing. It’s not meant to take you to a really, really dark place and then leave you there. I want to make sure people know that.”  

The Arizona Opera’s “The Falling and the Rising” by Zach Redler, libretto by Jerre Dye

WHEN: Various times Saturday, Oct. 22, to Sunday, Oct. 23

WHERE: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Avenue in Tucson

COST: See website for details

INFO: azopera.org

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