Sometimes art and life can be too close for comfort. But comfort wasn’t the point of composer David T. Little’s “Soldier Songs.”
“Soldier Songs,” a monodrama for baritone and chamber orchestra, received an extraordinarily powerful production on Saturday night at Hollywood’s outdoor Ford Theatre.
The audience included a strong band of impassioned veterans, although some were reportedly no-shows. That’s understandable. Little’s harrowing post-apocalyptic 2012 heavy-metal opera “Dog Days” (presented at REDCAT in 2015), and “JFK,” his 2016 opera, which depicted the last 24 hours in the life of President John F. Kennedy, should instantly make it clear to audiences that this wouldn’t be a night of relaxation.
Little is an artist who goes for the gut.
For his libretto, the composer conducted interviews with schoolmates and family members, including his 98-year-old grandfather who served in World War II. The work’s framing device — recorded voices of male and female veterans from five wars — collide and overlap. “War is killing.… The grunt does the dirty work.… All the casualties coming through, the dead and wounded.… I just assumed there wouldn’t be a war.… I ignored what I’d have to do with a gun in my hand.… I never talk about this with anybody, except other veterans.”
A co-presentation of Beth Morrison Projects and Los Angeles Opera’s Off Grand series, “Soldier Songs” began with faint, ominous percussive rumblings. As smoke slowly drifted through the theater, the nameless Soldier, performed with moving authority by baritone David Adam Moore, was seen through a huge scrim.
For just under one intensely compact hour, Moore, who created the role for the work’s 2008 New York premiere, seized our attention while moving about in what looked like a three-sided boxing ring, an apt metaphor for his internal postwar battle to retain his humanity.
The production, which was created by director Ashley Tata, with film by Bill Morrison, for the European premiere in 2014, starts by showing a childhood full of fantasy conditioning. Moore’s child is essentially being prepped for warfare. Here, Morrison uses spellbinding visuals of toy soldiers falling through space, seemingly benign images that later curdle into violent video games.
For lines like, “I wanna be a real American hero, like my toy soldier, killing all the bad guys with funny names,” Little’s score adds a Middle Eastern flavor in the clarinet. Such details in the composer’s largely percussive minimalist and rock-infused score were heard to striking effect in the Ford’s new state-of-the-art sound system. Sound designer Garth Macaleavey captured the score’s jittery quality, with Little’s ominous drones used to gut-wrenching effect. Christopher Kuhl’s subtle lighting design in the exposed terrain of the amphitheater enhanced our focus on the soldier’s interior and exterior landscape.
There were no supertitles, but none were necessary. With Moore as our increasingly tortured and isolated guide, we could always feel where we were in his journey from innocence to the consequences of real-world horror.
Alan Pierson crisply conducted the LA Opera Chamber Orchestra, seen dimly under the stage platform. From child to warrior, and then to a third section where stories diverged and veterans reflected on their combat experiences and challenges reintegrating back into civilian life, “Soldier Songs” brought it all home.
In one heartrending moment, a father grieved the death of my “son,” which prompted one female veteran at the post-concert talk to ask Little, who was in the audience, to amend that line to “child.”
In that eye-opening talk, a former corpsman in Vietnam, who said he still suffers bouts of PTSD, spoke of a veteran’s feelings of isolation, and moral wounds suffered for doing things that are not morally valid. “Can we change the narrative of our government’s political and monetary reasons for war?” he asked.
Then he offered his summation of “Soldier Songs:” “The concept was like war — confusing and it didn’t make sense.”