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Ballard and Burchett in Soldier Songs
© Jill Steinberg 2013
David T. Little's opera Soldier Songs should be required viewing for anybody who has not seen active service. The staggering production at the PROTOTYPE Festival, seen on January 12 at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, marks the end of a developmental process that began when Little returned to his high school to speak, along with an Iraq war veteran. Struck by the chasm between a soldier's experience and the seemingly impossible act of communicating it to others, even fellow soldiers, Little set about recording testimony from veterans and framing the words verbatim in graphic sound and music. The result, aided by Yuval Sharon's ruthless direction, seems to come as close as one possibly — or desirably — can to recreating the experience and aftereffects of war onstage.
Strictly speaking, the work is a monodrama, sung by a baritone (the fearlessly vulnerable Christopher Burchett), who is shadowed throughout by his young, naïve self, enacted with affecting naturalness by child actor Zac Ballard. The work is divided into three sections. In the first, the Boy plays toy soldiers and video games, fantasizing about fighting. In the second, his dream comes true and quickly turns nightmarish, as he is sent into a desert war. In the final section, Little offers two elder viewpoints — a father grieving for his lost son, and an old man who can't play chess without reliving the real battles he strategized and fought. Sharon shrewdly sets all the action in a sandbox, which serves each part of the narrative equally well. He also uses every visual and aural assist he can lay his hands on, from chillingly regular bomb-blasts that echo in the distance before the show even begins, through glaring kliegs and infrared bomb-tracking screens, to shadow-play behind a blood-spattered canvas drop. By outfitting the Soldier only in a helmet and his underwear, Sharon underscores the impossibility of protecting tender human flesh against the "steel rain" of shrapnel. While the grieving father dresses for his son's funeral, a TV crawl lists the dead — "whatshisname, whatshername, whatshisname, whatshername."
Little's score, played with brutality and wistfulness by the contemporary chamber ensemble Newspeak, illuminates the text without sentiment or show. When the Boy (voiced in falsetto by Burchett) sings, "Kill all the bad guys with the funny names," the innocently consonant tune is embroidered by an Arabian descant in the winds. The harrowing middle section employs both martial riffs and visceral, heavy-metal-infused beats. A moaning cello expresses the father's anguish until it surrenders into an uneasy contrapuntal truce with a fife and drum tattoo. In the end, however, the evening belonged to Burchett, who gave an unflinching, heroically human performance that will linger long in the memory. Ballard did have one brief chance to use his sweet treble, in the work's final moment, when he sang the haunting words, "I wish I could tell you that everything will be all right." And then, as the lights came up, the distant bombs resumed.
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER
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