OPERA NEWS - Fallujah
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In Review > North America


New York City Opera

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Hanson and Miller in NYCO’s Fallujah
© Sarah Shatz

NEW YORK CITY OPERA brought Long Beach Opera’s production of Fallujah to the Duke on 42nd Street for a four-performance run, beginning November 17. Inspired by the experiences of U.S. Marine Christian Ellis, who served as story consultant, this intense and moving eighty-minute opera by composer Tobin Stokes and Iraqi–American librettist Heather Raffo delves fearlessly into the emotional cost of war and the unseen struggles of veterans with PTSD. Philip, the protagonist, is under suicide watch in a VA hospital, while his adoptive mother, Colleen, waits in the hall. With reliable maternal instincts, she knows what he’s doing even though she can’t see him and calls on him to open the door, both literally and metaphorically. But like many well-meaning parents, she missteps unintentionally by asking the wrong questions and exhorting him to write her name on his arm for comfort. Her appeal triggers a series of fugue-like flashbacks, beginning with the time an Iraqi boy, Wissam, offered to write his name on Philip’s arm. This tentative gesture of understanding isn’t enough to save Wissam’s mother, Shatha, whom Philip kills, or Wissam himself, who becomes radicalized. 

With fractured musical and visual imagery, the flashbacks introduce us to Philip’s comrades as they try to maintain their humanity, even as they exploit each other’s weaknesses. One marine’s ode to his baby daughter (sung tenderly by tenor Todd Strange) captures the wonder that life can continue normally elsewhere. Although the aria resists being saccharine, it is capped—somewhat predictably—by a sniper’s bullet. Another moving sequence depicts the men calling home on the eve of the fatal battle of Fallujah, unable to reveal their fears that this goodbye may be the final one. The most heartrending moment is the dual lament of the mothers, whose tormented longing cuts to the heart of the whole raw messiness and futility of war. Librettist Raffo, whose Iraqi family was decimated during the conflict, provides singable, naturalistic, credible text, without self-conscious cleverness. As a result, bluntly poetic phrases such as “Nobody comes back to the same family; we’re all adopted” resonate with truth. Stokes responds with potent, dissonant music that combines elegiac Middle Eastern melismas and propulsive, guitar-driven rock. 

As Philip, LaMarcus Miller anchored the proceedings with a physically and vocally uncompromising performance as a man trying to escape the prison of his own mind. Unable to meet the eyes of his mother and his helpful fellow vet (a sympathetic Arnold Livingston Geis), his gaze returned to its default steeliness during the flashbacks. Miller’s elegant baritone kept Philip’s essential goodness front and center, even as the war raged inside and around him. 

Suzan Hanson was the embodiment of maternal devotion and vulnerability as Colleen, and Ani Maldjian’s lissome soprano projected a century’s worth of pain as Shatha. The brittle cry in Jonathan Lacayo’s tenor lent authenticity to Wissam’s struggle to keep his footing in a constantly shifting world. Zeffin Quinn Hollis (Kassim), Gregorio González (Lalo) and Jason Switzer (Rocks) all gave strong supporting performances. Director Andreas Mitisek’s immersive production incorporated vivid projections by Hana S. Kim and had camouflaged, rifle-toting marines patrolling the audience. Kristof Van Grysperre steered the musical end, which included an eleven-member chamber ensemble, with authority. It’s tempting to approach Fallujah as a mandatory civics lesson, but the opera demonstrates howa well-integrated work of art can step in when conversation fails. At the end, Colleen says to Philip, “I will listen.” You can too: Fallujah is streaming indefinitely on the website of coproducer explore.org. —Joanne Sydney Lessner

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