All war is hell. But it is a special hell for those expected to fight without understanding why, as it is a special hell for civilians caught up in the battle, unsure who are the good guys and who are the enemies.
In Tobin Stokes' "Fallujah," said to be the first opera written about the Iraq war and given its premiere by Long Beach Opera over the weekend, U.S. Marines and Iraqis alike know that "war made me," a refrain that haunts Heather Raffo's potent libretto. But these are ultimately victims caught up in a chain of events they can neither comprehend nor control, only make worse.
With the help of a terrifyingly authentic performance and the atmospheric music of Stokes (a Canadian composer with experience scoring documentary film), "Fallujah" is opera operating like an open wound, oozing pain and hopelessness. Locating the laceration is the uncertain first step for healing. Suicide, however, is the seductive step for forgetting.
Just as pain overpowers all other sensations, there can be few subtleties in "Fallujah." A Marine, Philip, is home from the front and spending 72 hours in a veterans hospital under suicide watch. A prisoner of post-traumatic stress disorder, he seeks something beyond numbness but is terrified of what that could unleash.
We see him on a stage in an old armory at the northern edge of Long Beach's East Village Arts District. The ushers wear military uniforms. When the opera unfolds as flashbacks of Fallujah, replete with explicit video imagery, you are not asked to employ your imagination to sense what it might have been like in this hell.
And because that is not likely what you want to read about over breakfast, first turn your attention to a young bass-baritone, LaMarcus Miller. His exacting portrayal, of a veteran battling inner demons as alarming as his Iraqi ones, does a brilliant job demonstrating how to make opera matter.
Based on the experiences of Christian Ellis, who was the opera's story consultant, Philip sits on his hospital cot like a caged animal ready to attack at the slightest provocation. His adopted mother waits outside, but he can't deal with seeing her while his mind remains at the battlefield, where it is impossible to tell an innocent boy or his veiled mother from terrorists.
Philip still can still taste the brains of a friend killed nearby in a sniper attack. Philip too kills, aimlessly. We almost don't need the flashbacks, because you see all this in Miller's eyes and body language; you hear it in his compelling voice.
Miller seems to use up nearly every bit of psychic energy in the armory. He is also the psychic focus of an explosive cast, directed with great care by Andreas Mitisek. Wissam, a Fallujah boy brought to sympathetic life by Jonathan Lacayo, is radicalized by the indiscriminate murder of his mother. War, of course, supplies a special hell for mothers. The profoundly moving tears of Philip's mother (Suzan Hanson) and Wissam's (Ani Maldjian) flow from the same source.
In almost every way "Fallujah" is Long Beach Opera at its unique best, bringing awareness through heightened emotion in ways only opera can. But "Fallujah" doesn't inspire to go beyond that narrative advantage to, as opera can through music, find universal insight.
Still, Raffo's libretto does a careful and sensitive job of distilling experience. She writes strong lines.
"All the right people left the fight," a Fallujah rebel (Zeffin Quinn Hollis) tells Wissam, "and all the wrong people came to fight," summarizing a great deal about what went wrong in Iraq.
Stokes treats all this with equal sensitivity. He writes clear, expressive vocal lines in which words and sentiments are easily understood. His musical style is porous, leaving room for elements of Iraqi music, American pop and much else. But it is the musical lack of ambiguity or individuality that also holds "Fallujah" back. He serves the drama rather than transforms it.
You exit the armory shaken and righteously angry. You go away with the taste in your mouth of Marines (Todd Strange, Gregorio González, Jason Switzer and Arnold Livingston Geis) placed in an impossible situation, a taste you can't easily expunge. Conductor Kristof Van Grysperre makes the expressive most of a small instrumental ensemble. Bob Christian's sound design is commendably prudent.
But so too is "Fallujah" prudent, rather than operatically imprudent. Its theatrical immediacy can leave you numb, and suffering well served is no small thing. But, like Philip, we need to be more than numb.
'Fallujah' at Long Beach Opera
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Friday performance will be broadcast live on KCET and Link TV)