SAN DIEGO—San Diego Opera (SDO) took a courageous leap in its local production of Soldier Songs by David T. Little, a decade-old opera for one singer and two actors. The hour-long work received three performances at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego Nov. 11-13 (seen Nov. 11, Veterans Day).
San Diego is an important military town, not only with active personnel stationed at bases in the area, but also a large military retirement community. The company went to extraordinary lengths to invite service members and their families into the planning for this production. Judging from the number of veterans in the house who were asked to stand and be recognized (about a third by my estimate), the opera succeeded in reaching a receptive audience.
At each performance, “Act Two” after the intermission featured a panel of veterans relating war stories and, just as important, their experiences of reintegrating into civilian society upon their return home. These witnesses are participants in Combat Arts, an organization that works with soldiers to reduce the effects of PTS through art therapy. Some of their work was displayed in the lobby.
SDO showed a daring spirit in presenting Soldier Songs because it is not a jingoistic celebration of military life. To the contrary, without demeaning the person of the soldier, the opera soon announces itself as a deeply affecting cry from the heart against all the illogic and inhumanity of war. In a series of eleven “songs,” the baritone (David Adam Moore) traces the evolution of a young boy into new recruit thrust into the maelstrom of battle, killing and death, into survivor plagued by unanswerable, sorrowful questions.
The company describes its production in these terms: “Multimedia is employed less as a collection of recorded evidence and more as a critique of the media’s ability to both glamorize and falsify the truth of combat.” Social criticism of war in opera has a history in works such as Igor Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik. In recent times creators for the musical stage have taken up the war in Iraq in three works that People’s World has discussed: Tobin Stokes’ Fallujah, Ellen McLaughlin’s musicated play Ajax in Iraq, and Ted Hearne and Mark Doten’s The Source.
The composer derived his libretto from interviews he conducted with half a dozen veterans of different wars, unfurling a collective life story in poems that reflect the age and maturity of the soldier from 6 to 66. The curtain opens on an Elder Man (Dan Denison) contemplating projected images of war, as if reflecting on his life. The baritone starts singing while a boy actor (Ryan Singer) plays with his toy weapons and fantasies:
I wanna be a real American Hero
I wanna be just like my toy soldiers
Killing all the bad guys with the funny names….
I’m gonna grow up and be a toy soldier.
Big bad machine guns makin’ big bad noise….
Good guys,bad guys, get to choose who will die….
So be it. Until victory is mine! And there is no enemy but peace.
I mean: no enemy…but peace.
The conductor, Steven Schick, took pains in the program notes to define “political music” as “music in tune with its time that offers not a message, but a mirror.” The director, Tomer Zvulun, also weighed in his program notes, saying that “Soldier Songs has absolutely no interest in taking a political or ideological stance. It is meant to provide a window to the world of a soldier, his or her experiences and challenges. It is meant to honor veterans, to commemorate those who are no longer with us, and to remember all who are affected by war…. It’s also about permission for their families and the rest of society to have an inkling, a fragment of an idea of what their experiences really are.”
It seemed to me, though I could be wrong, that this audience was affected by the performance, but might have felt ambivalent about what I took away as the obvious anti-war and anti-militarist content. Applause was more than polite, but less than thunderous.
Listeners could draw their own conclusions about the indelible effects on children of war videos and realistic war toys. Surely our culture prepares young people for lives of violence. As the soldier ages and eventually musters out, no one really asks the fundamental questions why do we fight these wars and die in them? For whom? For what? Perhaps the closest we come is the dramatic response a father displays when two Marines show up at his door to report his son’s death. And in the midst of battle, when our Soldier is ducking from explosions on all sides, he calls out, “Someone yell ‘Cut!’ This movie’s out of control!”
The opera ends with the Soldier and the boy embracing and wondering, “Where did I come from?” and “Who will I become?” This story feels like it will never end.
The score is a tour de force for the solo singer who is onstage and vocalizing almost the entire time. He has to exercise every part of his voice, and is as much an actor as a singer, as he nimbly scurries about the multi-platform stage designed by Vita Tzykun. The chamber orchestra has seven musicians—2 strings, 2 woodwinds, 2 percussion and piano. Some of the sound is manipulated through the use of distortion effects, so that the strings in places are heard as a rock guitar. The score is amplified: Singer, orchestra, and soundscape work together as a unified aural experience. Technically, the work demands a multitude of split-second cues to coordinate action, music, projections specific to each of the 28 surfaces on the stage, and extraordinary battlefield lighting.
I had not heard of the work before this, but apparently it has received frequent performances since its original commission by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble in 2006. At the rate the world is going, I doubt these powerful Soldier Songs will feel dated anytime soon.