By Philippa Kiraly, Special to The Sybaritic Singer
The Falling and the Rising, a chamber opera commissioned by Texas Christian University, Seattle Opera, San Diego Opera, Arizona Opera, and Opera Memphis, came from an idea by a tenor in the Soldiers Chorus of the U. S. Army Field Band, a man who had been an opera singer for a decade before joining the army. “Why not create an opera that tells what it is like to have been an active soldier, now a wounded soldier and a veteran, these days?” suggested Staff Sergeant Benjamin Hilgert.
The idea took hold and rapidly gained support. In 2018, the first performances of this opera, composed by Zach Redler with a libretto by Jerry Dye, took place at Opera Memphis, and Seattle Opera’s current production is the eighth around the country.
The first of five sold out performances was Friday night at Seattle Opera Center’s Tagney Jones Hall, followed by discussion with three veterans and a moderator.
The soloists were professionals, the chorus all local veterans who have experienced the trials of returning to civilian life, including homelessness.
It’s the tale of a soldier who gets a traumatic brain injury during an explosion, and during her recovery from a coma has dreams and flashbacks which include four other soldiers. She is ‘Everysoldier,’ just called Soldier here, and in her dream state she hears why all of them are here doing their patriotic duty, and their need for family, the family of fellow soldiers and their families back home. What she wants, as is made clear at the start, is to be home for her daughter’s birthday, and at the end, she makes it though rehab to home.
Thanks to the way the story is put together, the opera feels disjointed and at times it can be hard to follow, as Soldier in her dream state interacts with the others and, at times, is hearing doctors discussing her condition. The beginning where, before the explosion which wounds her, she is Skyping her daughter, seems to continue too long, though it sets the stage for her feelings of being torn with wanting to be with the child and doing her duty here.
The small stage area is divided, with a backstage area where there is, unseen, a small orchestra of 11 Seattle Symphony musicians with a conductor, curtained side wings, and the front where there are steps both sides leading to an upper area, the lower one with equipment boxes around and camouflage netting draping the rise to the upper level. A large screen at back sets the environment, whether it be the desert, the sky, the operating room, a Baptist Church and more.
Soprano Tess Altiveros sings the Soldier, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Galafa sings Toledo, the tough kid who became a soldier, whose brothers had her back in school and her unit has her back now—except most were killed; Jumper the paratrooper is sung by tenor Tim Janecke extolling the beauty of jumping, but you’d better pack your parachute correctly; bass Damien Geter is Colonel, anguished by the need to be at home where there has clearly been a crisis, and baritone Jorell Williams is the wheelchair-bound Homecoming Solider, expected to tell his story to his Baptist congregation and finding it almost impossible to say what he has gone through, including rehab.
All this time the Soldier is gradually coming out of her coma, gradually recovering, the doctors say she is doing well but has a long way to go. We see her brain scans and the jittery lines of jangled brain tissue across the screen in flashes that interrupt the stories she is dreaming that the other soldiers tell.
At the very end, she comes back, using a walker, the other soldiers present as is the chorus, who sang very briefly mostly from backstage, and is able to reconnect with her daughter.
Redler’s music is clear, tonal, and very much in service to the words. These are important and, unfortunately, even in the small space of Tagney Jones, it was often difficult to hear all of them clearly, so that one could only hear snatches of the soldiers’ stories. Super titles would have been a big help.
Fortunately it is possible to read the libretto online beforehand which would help clarify what could be quite a bewildering experience, not understanding exactly what is happening onstage.
The singers, all excellent actors as well as excellent, expressive singers, were wearing tiny mics, presumably to keep them connected with the 11-member orchestra playing backstage, because there was no need for them for the audience’s hearing. The orchestra and singers stayed remarkably together with the instrumentalists conducted by Michael Sakir.
The message of the opera, as it was brought out in the post-performance discussion, is the importance, the necessity, of connection, between family and soldiers, between soldier and soldier, that this is what keeps them going, that they are all humans inside those uniforms.
Staff Sergeant Ben Hilgert was one of the three vets in the discussion. Another, Tyler McGibbon, brought his service dog with him, and his story was very similar to what was told in the opera and can be read online via Google.
All performances in Seattle are sold out, but it would be good to have this opera return, soon.
Philippa Kiraly has been writing classical music criticism since 1980, for several newspapers in northern Ohio and Seattle, magazines, both local and national, and blogs. She is passionate about the importance of independent criticism for the fine arts, an art in itself which is dying with little interest by many publications and no longer a viable career for most. But writing for tickets is always worthwhile!
Pippa is a keen gardener, a keen grandparent, and can get lost in a good book.