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Back to Iraq: 'Fallujah' Opera Reflects the Aftermath of War

Fallujah web banner
"Fallujah" opera
Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/Long Beach Opera.

"Fallujah" is the first opera on the Iraq War. Artbound documentary "Fallujah: Art, Healing, and PTSD" explores how the experience of war was transformed into a work of art. Watch the episode's debut Tuesday, May 24 at 9 p.m., or check for rebroadcasts here.

“Nothing is more barbarous than war. Nothing is more cruel,” wrote Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda. Yet war often generates great art. The opera "Fallujah," inspired by the recollections of violence and tragedy of Iraq War veteran Christian Ellis (and performed by Long Beach Opera in March 2016) is a stunning example.

In 2004, Ellis was a 19-year-old Marine entering the Iraq War as a machine gunner. He fought in the second battle of Fallujah, witnessing some of the fiercest fighting during that war, as well as its intense toll on his fellow Marines and on Iraqis. As one of few survivors of a major ambush, he returned home seriously wounded both emotionally and physically with a fractured spine, while battling post traumatic stress disorder. And after several suicide attempts, he resumed his former passion for singing as a method to relieve his anguish.

“Fallujah” was conceived by philanthropist and filmmaker Charles Annenberg Weingarten who met Ellis at a fly fishing retreat for soldiers with PTSD, and was moved by his courage when faced with personal tragedies and haunting memories of war. He suggested that Ellis transform his war experiences and PTSD into an opera that could help heal those suffering from similar problems. Weingarten provided a grant of $250,000 from the Annenberg Foundation and his division explore.org to City Opera Vancouver. The goal was to assemble a team with Ellis as the story consultant, along with a writer and composer, to create a contemporary opera about the War in Iraq.

"Fallujah" opera
Tobin Stokes, Heather Raffo and Christian Ellis. |  Photo: Joseph Kovar/Long Beach Opera.

Heather Raffo, an award-winning Iraqi-American playwright was selected to write the libretto for “Fallujah. She had already produced her one-woman play “9 Parts of Desire,” documenting the plight of women in Iraq. To begin creating the opera’s narrative, she spent quality time with Ellis, who flew to New York to meet with her, in early 2011. The two discussed in great detail his complex and painful Iraq War experiences.

In a phone interview from Brooklyn, Raffo explained, “Christian and I both had our guard up initially.” But as they dialogued about the impact of the Iraq War on their lives they, “developed deep trust and compassion for each other.” Once the floodgates opened, they talked for 10 hours a day for a week. And as they talked, she began formulating the libretto for the opera, which would profile the lives and relationships of two young men (and their mothers), one an American Marine, the other an Iraqi boy and lifelong resident of the war-torn city of Fallujah.

Raffo, who grew up in Michigan with an Iraqi father and European-American mother, became obsessed with our country’s presence in the Middle East during the 1990 Gulf War when she was just 20 years old. Then on election night, 2000, she told her father, "We're going to war again in Iraq." And during that war, which began in 2003, she witnessed one Iraqi relative after another leaving the country for disparate parts of the world, or suffering under the brutal violence occurring there. “I used to have 100 relatives in Iraq. Now I have only three,” she said, a reality that helped her relate to Ellis who lost dozens of  comrades in the war. The fact that Raffo had just given birth to her first son when she met with Ellis added to their bonding. “He saw me as a mother figure,” she explained.

Raffo also interviewed other American soldiers and Iraqis for the opera’s narrative. “My intention was to spark a national conversation about the emotional cost of the war, as men and women returning home could not talk openly about their experiences there, particularly with their families. In the act of speaking, there is a journey and part of that journey is healing.” She added, “I wanted to put the audience inside the restless mind of a Marine returning from war, to collectively experience how the memory of violence is carried by all who come into contact with it, how hard it is to heal from and how deep is the human desire to communicate even during conflict.”

As Raffo completed the libretto for the opera, she collaborated with Tobin Stokes who was contracted by City Opera Vancouver to create the music for “Fallujah.” The Canadian composer (of opera, choral music and film) wove into the contemporary opera melodies inspired by Middle Eastern and American rock music. Stokes explained, “This is a very real story of people who live among us. I’ve tried to create a unique musical vocabulary influenced by compelling characters from disparate cultures.” Raffo added, “The operatic voice is the most sophisticated instrument to articulate what is unspeakable... to express the shades of love, trauma and agony.” Early versions of “Fallujah” were performed in workshops at City Opera Vancouver in 2012, at the Kennedy Center, Georgetown University, Noor Theater (NYC), the Culture Project (NYC), and at the University of Southern Florida, Tampa, among others.

On March 12, 2016, “Fallujah” had its full-length world premiere in Long Beach's cavernous Army National Guard building. The final performance of this Long Beach Opera Company production was held on March 20, on the 13th anniversary of the United States’ “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq. Discussing the show’s unusual theme, Long Beach Opera artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek said that the company’s mission is, “to produce works of social relevance.” With the company’s approval, he began looking for an opera about the Iraq War, and discovered “Fallujah” two years ago. “We soon decided to mount the world premiere of this opera, the first one ever about the Iraq War.”

"Fallujah" opera
Photo: Joseph Kovar/Long Beach Opera.​

Producing “Fallujah” in an armory added to its military ambiance. And the medium of opera, albeit one with an orchestra that included an electric guitar and an ancient Iraqi oud (similar to a lute), helped to convey the intense ongoing fear and stress of American soldiers in Iraq, their Iraqi counterparts and their distraught mothers. Composer Stokes explained, “The orchestration takes us from deadly tensions to yearnings for inner calm.” Mitisek added, “The emotional content of the operative singing voice helps bring depth to the production. Music takes the audience to a different level of understanding where they can feel the passions and emotions of the performance in their hearts [beneath their conscious reality].”

“Fallujah” also incorporated dazzling images of war-torn Iraq projected onto the multi-tiered stage, enabling the viewers to further engage in the story of a Marine’s flashbacks, and reconciliation with his past painful experiences and of recovery. In keeping with the opera’s devotion to authenticity, the projected images were created by Iraq War veteran Michael Hebert, a Marine who paints in part to cure his PTSD, and by Navy veteran Jon Harguindeguy who leads an arts program at the nearby Long Beach VA hospital. Combining the dramatic music with expressive visuals, backed by a brave, heartfelt libretto, brought the audience into the action and emotions of war, into the feral kill-or-be-killed existence that soldiers experience.

"Fallujah" opera
Photo: Joseph Kovar/Long Beach Opera.​

Set in a veteran’s hospital over 72 hours, “Fallujah” traces the story of U.S. Marine Philip Houston, a character based loosely on Ellis’ life, who is being observed following his third suicide attempt. As the opera progresses, Philip relives his experiences in Iraq during repeated flashbacks, allowing the audience to vicariously experience the horror of war.

Early in the opera, Philip’s adoptive mother, Colleen, sings, “Philip? Philip? Open the door! You’ve got to open the door!” But Philip who cannot bear to meet with her sings, “Can’t feel what’s wrong, can’t heal what’s gone, wanna hurt but nothing hurts, too dangerous to be alive, dangerous to be outside where nothing hurts, find hurt to stop me from going numb.” Also present is Wissam, an Iraqi boy who has witnessed the destruction of his home and hometown. He sings, “Since the day I stood in the ashes of my school, I have been without purpose, even without pen and paper. Everything I was excited to accomplish collapsed in a second.” Completing the cast are Wissam’s strong-willed mother Shatha; Kassim, an Iraqi man who is fighting in his country’s resistance; Marine Private Richards (Rocks), Senior Lance Corporal Eduardo Lopez (Lalo) and Corpsman HM3 Harris.

Later in the opera, Colleen and Shatha sing together, “How can I care for him? It hurts him to be mine.” Toward the end of the opera, Philip sings, “Mom, I had a boy, I had his mother in my hands, and he was so much more than me, so much more, and I killed her with my bare hands. So mom, what does that make me?”

Wissam’s final lines of the opera addressed to Philip affirm the dignity of life, while reminding him and the audience that one’s life has meaning in this world. Wissam sings, “My name’s Wissam… I’ll write it for you. 'And your name? Your mother named you to mean something.'”

"Fallujah" opera
Photo: Joseph Kovar/Long Beach Opera.​

Ellis explained, “Bringing my experiences to life in ‘Fallujah’ has given me hope, inspiration and a pathway to healing. My hope is that the music, the words and the emotions are woven together in such a way that [it] touches not just servicemen who come home to experience deep turmoil, but anyone who is suffering.” He added, “Going through this opera has allowed me to have my guilt, or shame or demons, presented to me in a way that music can help heal.”

Mitisek, who has been cited as “a major force in the field of opera” by Opera News, worked with several Iraq War veterans to create this immersive opera. He said that it is gratifying to create a deeper understanding of the tragedies of war through opera, and that the production is ultimately “a community builder.”

“Fallujah’s” message is about young men and their mothers who are dealing with a war that questions and even undermines their identities and relationships. It powerfully conveys the cultural/ethnic divisions and hatred that are created by war, in spite of the individual participants’ shared humanity. The opera also dramatizes the ways we react to violence and shows how we may heal from devastating experiences by sharing the pain in our hearts with others.

"Fallujah" opera
Photo: Joseph Kovar/Long Beach Opera.​

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