The Sound and Fury of Warby Pat Launer September 30, 2016
It seems that war is always with us. Kids stage assaults with guns. Teens play battle-drenched video games. Young adults go through military training and the bloody, real-life war experience. And then, the aftermath: depression, PTSD, and the painful process of integrating back into civilian life. If you survive.
This is the trajectory, from age 6 to 66, of “Soldier Songs,” the first operatic work created by well-regarded contemporary composer David T. Little.
“When I saw the workshop premiere in 2008 in New York,” says Israeli director Tomer Zvulum, “I was profoundly touched. I was shaken. I lived what the guy in the show lived. I remembered so many corresponding moments in my own life.”
Tomer, who was born in Ashkelon, in the south of Israel, served in the Israeli Army from age 18-21 (1994-1997), as a first lieutenant, chief medic for an infantry battalion.
It was a field medic who inspired Little to create the opera though the composer had never had any personal military experience. In 2003, Little was asked to return to his New Jersey high school to give a talk about his career, while other alumni spoke about their life and work. One of the other alums was the field medic who served in Iraq.
Little started to think about the role of war in his own life, which was far removed from armed conflict. But he recalled relatives who had served in various wars, and this sparked the idea of interviewing combat veterans – friends, family and others. He spoke with Army, Air Force and Marine veterans of five wars, spanning the time from World War II to the present. None of the vets had ever spoken about their experiences before. These interviews became the core of “Soldier Songs.”
The opera, which was commissioned by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, premiered in 2006, and went on to productions in New Haven and New York. In November 2015, it was mounted at the Atlanta Opera, where Tomer Zvulum is the general and artistic director. Part of his new Discovery Series (smaller-scale productions, lesser-known works), it was a huge success. The opera has been described as “staggering,” “played with brutality and wistfulness,” showing the “terror of actual battle and the anguished loss that comes in its wake.”
Now, “Soldier Songs” makes its West Coast premiere at San Diego Opera, as the debut of the newly-created Detour Series which, the Opera says, “explores works that fall outside the Company’s ongoing tradition of presenting grand operas at the Civic Theatre.” Opening on Veterans Day, the short opera, comprising 11 gut-wrenching songs performed by a single baritone (David Adam Moore) enacting the stages in the life of one composite soldier, will be presented at the Balboa Theatre, in English, with English text projected above the stage (Nov. 11-13).
The work begins with the quote, “I never talk about this with anybody.”
According to Tomer, “that’s a universal truth for veterans. The piece is about permission, to empower soldiers to talk about their experiences, something society doesn’t always allow – or they don’t allow themselves. It doesn’t matter if the war was Vietnam or Iraq or the Gaza Strip. These universal experiences deserve to be told, and heard. It’s also permission for their families and the rest of society to get an inkling, a fragment of an idea of what theses soldiers experienced. ‘Soldier Songs’ is for and about the people affected by war.”
It was Tomer’s idea to open the work on Veterans Day, and to follow the performance with an Act II of sorts, a panel discussion with artists involved in the production, as well as veterans, moderated in San Diego by psychiatrist Dr. Kathleen Emery, who has worked with PTSD patients locally.
Noted baritone David Adam Moore made his SDO debut in 2009, as Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet.” He was last seen here in 2014, as Silvio in “Pagliacci.” Steven Schick, acclaimed music director and conductor of the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra and faculty member at UC San Diego, makes his company debut at the podium. The production is designed by GLMMR (Giving Light Motion + Memory + Relevance), a multi-media art collective that combines traditional stagecraft with cutting-edge projection mapping technology.
Meeting of the minds – in Israel
Director Tomer Zvulum nearly became a doctor; after the IDF, he was accepted to medical school.
“I was always torn between science and art,” he says, but he ultimately decided to study music and theater at the Open University in Tel Aviv, He cut his operatic teeth at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv (founded in 1985), beginning as an usher, and working his way up to stagehand, stage manager and ultimately, assistant director.
He came to the U.S. in 2001 as a visiting scholar at Boston University, where he spent three years. He then served as assistant director at opera companies around the country, culminating in seven years as staff director at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He had directed several times at Atlanta Opera, and came on-board full-time in 2012, as both artistic director and administrator. He implemented the Discovery Series, which is similar to SDO’s Detour Series. A new father (his daughter, Maya, is only a few months old), he just completed an Executive MBA at Harvard Business School.
Fifteen years ago, he met designer Vita Tzukun at the Israeli Opera, when they were both stage managers. They’ve created more than a dozen productions together, all over the world. David Moore, who is Vita’s husband, and co-founder of GLMMR, is also an old friend of Tomer. When Tomer first directed “Soldier Songs” in Atlanta, he wanted Vita and David to design the show, so he obtained the services of another baritone for that production. But now that the design is established, David can sing the opera here.
“The three of us created this show,” says Tomer, who’s also a fan of David Bennett, the General Director of SDO, the former Executive Director of Gotham Chamber Opera in New York who arrived here in summer 2015.
“I think he’s extremely forward-thinking and progressive,” Tomer says of Bennett. “He realizes that a community needs to be a partner, telling stories that relate, not just entertain. Companies that don’t change don’t survive.”
Tomer admires composer David Little, too: “His base is classical, but in this work, there are influences of rock, pop, jazz, even heavy metal. The libretto offers a very honest and realistic view of what it is to be a soldier. In childhood, combat is fun; there’s no blood or pain. During training, it’s still very exciting. But then, when you start getting into battle and losing friends, you get a whole different angle on the experience. Most profound is the aftermath, and getting back in the world.”
The look of this production is crucial to its success.
Metaphor and visual design
Designer Vita Tzukun was born in Odessa, Ukraine. When she was 12, her family moved to Israel, among the one million Jews who emigrated from the Soviet Union. She obtained her undergraduate degree at Tel Aviv University, in theatrical set and costume design. She spent two years at the Israeli Opera (2000-2002), where she met Tomer, and where her husband, David Adam Moore, sang the title role in the opera, “Billy Budd.” David, she brags, is “the only opera singer in the U.S. who designs professionally, too.”
When she moved to New York, she completed a Master’s Degree at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. She was the first student there, she says, to pursue a double major focused on designing both sets and costumes for both theater and film. She has designed for many theater and opera companies, and for special events like concerts by Lady Gaga and Courtney Love. Recently, she had an extended solo exhibition of her designs at the National Opera America Center in New York. In 2016, she was nominated for General Design Achievement honors at the International Opera Awards.
She and her husband, both peripatetic Brooklyn-based artists, had always wanted to work together – partly so they could be in the same place at the same time. So about two years ago, they founded GLMMR, inviting dancers, actors and other artists into their “collective” as needed for each project.
“We always wanted to bring a holistic experience to audiences,” Vita says. “Individually, we blurred the lines between artforms – musical theater, straight theater, opera, dance – and we figured, together, we can quadruple that! I design the costumes and/or sets; David is the techno-wiz.”
“‘Soldier Songs’,” she feels, is “extremely visceral, and so necessary right now. What’s great about it is that it doesn’t judge. It has no political agenda. It’s not anti-war or anti-soldier.”
Both Vita and Tomer find the second half of the evening, the panel discussion and the revelations that emerge from onstage veterans, to be one of the most exciting parts of the production. The first segment, the performance, runs about an hour; the discussion typically lasts about 30 minutes.
“What GLMMER has created,” says Vita, “is an ever-shifting, multi-media visual world, with our innovative video projection mapping. We’re not just projecting on a rectangular screen. We project the video on different areas of the set, sometimes a narrow space, sometimes the singer walks into the images. It’s unexpected; around every corner, there’s a surprise. So you hardly ever see the entire set. It’s constantly shifting, like life.
“We use abstract forms, cubes, all painted with projection-reflective material. So, there are no film screens. It’s like a maze of cubic forms, synched to the voices of the veterans. The score is part electronic, part live orchestra (at SDO, there will be 10 musicians). At the very end, all the words pile up and the word TALK grows larger and larger.”
So, the piece proceeds from not talking about war experiences, to the vital importance of explicitly talking.
As collaborators, Vita and Tomer say they work so well and so often together because they share the same underlying artistic principles.
“As an artist,” Tomer explains, “my credo is that our role is to convey the human experience.”
As Vita puts it, every piece she does “has to be humane, has to have a message. Life is complex. The world needs more compassion. I want to explore and enhance the visual experience for the audience.”
With “Soldier Songs,” says Tomer, “we’ve created something that’s a product of our time. This production provides a lot of multi-media stimulation. We took the technology and created a world. The projections, in a combination of original and archival content, convey the world of soldiers and also their psychological world.
“You can do this as a cool new piece, or try to touch hearts and souls with it. You can serve a bigger purpose than just a work of art, or just an entertainment. This production is dense and intense. It’s a little like watching an IMAX movie. The sound and visual images surround you; it’s a bit of an assault on the senses, a little like war itself. We’re trying to create a profound evening in theater that leads to open hearts and minds and mouths, to tell the stories that must be told.”
The San Diego Opera presents the West Coast premiere of “Soldier Songs” Nov. 11-13 at the Balboa Theatre, 868 4th Ave, downtown San Diego.
Tickets (starting at $20) are available at (619) 232-7636 or sdopera.org. Note: “Soldier Songs” contains strong language, simulated gunshots, explosions and other combat-like sounds and visual effects.