New opera “Fallujah”: Heartbreaking look at war and PTSD online now

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LONG BEACH, Calif. - A new opera by composer Tobin Stokes has just completed its world premiere run of seven performances at the Army National Guard Armory in Long Beach, by the pathbreaking Long Beach Opera.

The company invested tremendous resources to get the word out about Fallujah, the first opera written about the Iraq War. The Los Angeles Times and other media covered it extensively, and the local television station KCET broadcast a complete performance of it during the course of its run.

Named for the principal battle of the Iraq War that decimated the great and ancient city of the Fertile Crescent, Fallujah brings us, through searing performances and highly effective staging and projections, right into the beating heart of a place residents are trying to defend with the last shred of their civic honor, and where U.S. Marines are ordered to kill everything that moves.

The central character is U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Philip (LaMarcus Miller), seen during a 72-hour suicide watch in a veterans' hospital. His buddies check in on him regularly, but are unable to pierce his delirium. His mom Colleen (Suzan Hanson) waits patiently outside his door, hoping he will open it and allow her to listen with compassion to his terrifying memories, fears and fantasies.

On the Iraqi side, there is a parallel relationship between mother Shatha (Ani Maldjian) and her teenage son Wissam (Jonathan Lacayo), who are scared, angry and resentful that the peaceful life their family has enjoyed in Fallujah for 500 years is being destroyed before their eyes.

Other characters are Philip's fellow Marines in various states and stages of calm and anxiety, life and death.

The focus of the opera is on the human experience of war and war's consequences for the families at home. There might be those who would criticize the opera for not placing blame and responsibility on the proper shoulders, but this would have introduced a controversial political element distracting to the central mission of the work, to arouse feelings of understanding and empathy for the suffering on all sides. Viewers will certainly draw their own conclusions without much editorializing from the authors.

The libretto is by Heather Raffo, herself of Iraqi-American background. Two Marine Corps veterans who served in Iraq, Jon Harguindeguy and Michael Hebert, acted as art designers and consultants. Andreas Mitisek was the director and production designer; he is also Long Beach Opera's Artistic and General Director. Lighting was by Dan Weingarten, and Hana S. Kim was the video designer. Kristof van Grysperre conducted a small chamber ensemble.

After each performance the cast and creative partners opened the floor to audience reaction. On the afternoon I attended (March 19), audience members spoke of their tears watching the performance, their empathy with the soldiers and their families, and the insanity - as well as the criminality - of a war of choice that did not need to happen in the first place. Several people in the house said they had marched against the war back in 2003. Clearly, participation in this project was an emotional trial for all the singers: One of them, posed a question about what the opera meant to her, was too choked up to respond.

The entire opera can be seen here and is highly worthwhile. At the same site can be found a number of other features and interviews about the opera. This is an opera unlike any other. One of its closest relatives may be Czech composer Leoš Janáček's bleak, tragic 1927 opera "From the House of the Dead," libretto by the composer, after Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The running time of the opera is 80 minutes, and it is sung in English.