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Ken Lavigne, who plays USMC Lance Corporal Philip Houston, performs his part while workshopping a new opera about Iraq at the Carnegie Centre in Vancouver, Nov. 14, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail)
Ken Lavigne, who plays USMC Lance Corporal Philip Houston, performs his part while workshopping a new opera about Iraq at the Carnegie Centre in Vancouver, Nov. 14, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail)

Music

War trauma in the wings at City Opera Vancouver Add to ...

The intersection of Hastings and Main may be the closest thing Vancouver has to a war zone, but the atmosphere out there on a cold night this week felt positively pleasant compared to the scene unfolding inside the Carnegie Centre on that same corner: dead soldiers, dead children, grieving mothers, posttraumatic stress disorder, suicide attempts.

The Iraq war is the difficult subject matter of a new chamber opera being developed by City Opera Vancouver, which this week held its first public workshop of the piece – “a kind of world premiere,” COV artistic director Charles Barber told the couple of dozen people who gathered for the event. They heard three arias from the work-in-progress, as well as the opera’s horrific backstory.

The opera focuses on the 2004 battle of Fallujah, and the impact on those involved, including American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. And it especially concentrates on the mental trauma suffered by the survivors. “Throughout, we have this issue of what it means to live, and to be reminded of, and at midnight to wake up in the black sweat of, the consequence of war,” Barber told the workshop, “when all you feel is guilt and remorse and horror. How do you live with that?”

The opera doesn’t have a name yet – Fallujah and Lose the Boy are two titles being considered – but it does have some serious backing: The California-based Annenberg Foundation’s Explore program awarded COV a $250,000 (U.S.) commissioning grant to create the work.

It also has a real-life inspiration: Christian Ellis, a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who left for Iraq on his 21st birthday, and served in Fallujah. He is now on disability, suffering from PTSD. He has attempted suicide at least three times since his tour of duty.

“We’re young men fighting old men’s wars,” Ellis, now 28, told The Globe and Mail, the morning after the workshop. “It’s the young men that you see dealing with the absolute horror, trauma, reality and hardships of war.”

While the opera is not a biography, it does draw heavily on Ellis’s experiences, and would not, in fact, exist without him. It was his relationship with Explore director Charles Annenberg Weingarten, whom he met at a fly-fishing retreat for veterans, that sparked the idea – and the funding. Annenberg Weingarten, a philanthropic powerhouse, was enthralled by Ellis’s story and felt it would make a good basis for an opera.

Last year, Annenberg Weingarten was in Vancouver and heard Barber speak at a public salon organized by former mayor Sam Sullivan. He felt he had found the opera company to tell Ellis’s story.

“The idea for the opera was ignited by meeting Christian,” says Barber, “and reignited by meeting us.”

Ellis wrote the scenario, and then spent a week with playwright Heather Raffo. She was commissioned by COV to write the libretto after COV board president Nora Kelly saw a production of Raffo’s play 9 Parts of Desire, based on interviews Raffo had done with women in Baghdad.

Raffo, a New Yorker, is half-Iraqi and has many relatives in Baghdad. At 41, she told the Vancouver audience this week, she has been torn apart by war for half her life. “Pretty much 20 years of my life has been America and Iraq duking it out. So it’s very much embodied in my psyche ... and I’ve seen my family absolutely deteriorate because of these conflicts, and it’s a real shame. I can’t say I started out political, but I have been polarized by what’s going on in the world.”

Victoria-based composer Tobin Stokes was commissioned to write the music. He immersed himself in books, films and newspaper articles about the Iraq war and war in general, and in Iraqi music.

“I’ve let a few little Iraqi flavours sort of blend into the music,” he says. “It’s so easy to make another culture a novelty of your opera, and make it cliché and just bash you over the head with these cliché things we might think come from Middle Eastern music. It’s so much harder to make it less obvious and try to make it part of the vocabulary that happens throughout the opera.”

In the opening aria, Ending Is The Easy Way, Philip (the Ellis character) is in a military hospital, having just attempted suicide. In a state of absolute despair, he asks, “How can I sleep?” and “Will anyone care what we did or what we did it for?”

Vancouver Island-based tenor Ken Lavigne, who sings the haunting words, calls the subject matter “an emotional minefield” that has been a challenge personally and professionally for him. “I’ve cursed the sky and I’ve dragged my feet, and at the same time I’ve come out of it really changed, for sure.”

Ellis himself is a classically trained tenor, and is working on “rebuilding and restructuring” his voice, fixing the vocal trauma he experienced in Iraq – while also working part-time as a bar bouncer back home in Denver. He says his involvement in developing the opera has been an important part of his recovery. “It’s helping me face a lot of my demons in a way I don’t think any kind of therapy or medicine or pills would be able to accomplish.”

That said, it has made for some extraordinary challenges.

“It’s very awkward sometimes and very painful hearing the words come from [a character based on]somebody who’s no longer alive; that’s playing a person that came from someone in my life, who I knew. And so in that respect, it’s very difficult, surreal. But at the same time, I know what the intent of this opera is, and it’s the end result that is so motivating and keeps me going.”

He doesn’t see this as a political work, but does want the issue of PTSD publicized, and wants people to see the war – and all war – from another perspective.

As Barber put it this week, “War kills everybody. It kills everybody.”

The as-yet-untitled opera will hold a full workshop at Vancouver’s Frederic Wood Theatre at the University of British Columbia on May 13, 2012.

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