An Opera About the Iraq War Experience Is Born

At age 19, Christian Ellis enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and was selected for the Military Occupational Specialty program, where he learned everything about infantry machinery to become a machine gunner. During his first tour in Iraq in 2004, he was responsible for a significant amount of operations for the city of Al Fallujah. When his platoon was ambushed during one of the bloodiest periods of the war, he was one of the only survivors. 

explore: Fish Out of Water
In "Fish Out of Water," the explore.org team visits with combat vets in Sun Valley Idaho to witness the connection between nature and healing.

“A road bomb went off and it went off underneath us. Flipped our Humvee. I was just worried about all my boys. I could care less about me,” Ellis said.

Ellis and the few survivors did what they “had to do” to complete the mission. Since he already had a bad back, it wasn’t until a couple of days later that he realized something was wrong.

“I was in so much pain that my legs were going numb,” Ellis said. “I took one step and I just fell to the ground.”

Ellis was told his back was broken, news that changed his life forever. 

He returned home to join the more than 2.2 million Americans currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

In 2008, Ellis met Charles Annenberg Weingarten while the explore.org team visited combat veterans to learn how soldiers deal with PTSD. Ellis was featured in the “Explore” episode “Fish Out of Water.” The episode explained how emotionally and physically wounded veterans begin to heal as they connect with nature.

explore: Fish Out of Water - Studio Interview
Charlie Annenberg Weingarten reunites with veterans Christian Ellis and Joe Gracia from "Fish Out of Water" to talk further about the challenges of life after wartime.

When Weingarten heard Ellis sing, he was deeply moved by the courage and soul Ellis displayed. Weingarten challenged Ellis to transform his experience into a work of art to heal and inspire others.
With a generous grant, explore.org tasked City Opera Vancouver with creating a contemporary opera inspired by the life and work of Ellis. Despite Ellis’ four suicide attempts, with the help of an award-winning Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffio, and accomplished Canadian composer Tobin Stokes, “Fallujah” was born.  

“Christian paints a vivid picture of the harrowing realities he and his comrades faced in Iraq,” Weingarten said. “He tells of his experiences with emotional honesty, and with deep compassion and understanding for the opposing side.”

The opera offers a glimpse into the mind of a veteran who struggles with PTSD, and reveals that the battle doesn't end on the front line. “Fallujah” also tells the stories mothers and sons as they search for hope and healing in the aftermath of war.

“Bringing my experiences to life in ‘Fallujah’ has given me hope, inspiration and a pathway to healing,” Ellis said. “My hope is that the music, the words and the emotions are woven together in such a way that ‘Fallujah’ touches not just servicemen who come home to experience deep turmoil, but anyone who is suffering.”

The opera has been used as development workshops at the Kennedy Center, Georgetown University, Arena Stage, Noor Theater, and The Culture Project. Today, Long Beach Opera’s production brings “Fallujah” to the world.

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