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Houston, We've Got a Problem--A new War Opera

Consider this essay a scouting expedition. On August 29, 2011 at the Davis Performing Arts Center of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, the Dresser experienced a reading of a work-in-progress chamber opera libretto written by Heather Raffo. HeatherRaffo219.jpgThe event was co-partnered by Arena Stage and Georgetown University with funding from the Ammerman family.

The as-yet untitled opera comes as a result of the largest single commissioning grant to a Canadian opera company by the Annenberg Foundation in connection with the philanthropic multimedia organization Explore. This grant of $250,000 was awarded to City Opera Vancouver, which in turn commissioned Canadian composer Tobin Stokes and Iraqi-American playwright and performance artist Heather Raffo. Both Stokes and Raffo have considerable success records. Stokes_TobinSM.jpgStokes has had all kinds of commissions, writing not only for traditional music forums but also for television, film, and sporting events. Raffo is particularly known for her performance piece 9 Parts of Desire in which Raffo, both as author and performer, explores the lives of nine women who are either Iraqi or American Iraqi. The play has had multiple productions in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The untitled play--Raffo currently favors the title "Lose the Boy"--is based on the real life story of the American soldier Christian Ellis who returned from the Battle of Fallujah with a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). singing-Marine_tx300.jpgThe play has nine characters--five are American soldiers, three are Iraqis, and one is the protagonist's adopted mother Colleen. In Raffo's poetic rendition of Ellis' story, USMC Lance Corporal Philip Houston comes to know an Iraqi mother and her son Wissam. This mother and son play counterpoint to Philip's strained relationship with his adopted mother. The playwright's dilemma aired in the Georgetown University Gonda Theatre was whether to end the play with Philip killing Wissam or Wissam's mother. As audience members pointed out in the talkback session after hearing both endings, if Philip kills the son (the more expected action) than the opportunity for the mothers to sing a lamenting duet exists. If Philips kills Wissam's mother, the opera loses its only soprano. However, the death of the mother reverberates more strongly with the difficulty Philip experiences in communicating with his adopted mother after he comes home from Fallujah.

In this strong DC reading, Heather Raffo played the Iraqi mother, DC actors Amy McWilliams played Colleen (the Dresser has seen in her such productions as Shlemiel the First--Theatre J, Nevermore--Signature Theatre, Witches of Eastwick--Signature Theatre) and Theo Hadjimichael played Kassim, an Iraqi man who was imprisoned with the father of the Wissam. The rest of the players were Georgetown University students. Beni El-Dalati as Wissam stood out in particular among the Georgetown students, making a willful teenage boy in a war zone very credible.

The Dresser does not know if the playwright resolved which ending suited her libretto best, but the process was quite interesting to watch and certainly whetted the Dresser's curiosity about the opera. Raffo said she expects the opera, which is slated for its world premiere in June 2012, will eventually have a United States premiere. The Dresser also notes that there seems to be an uptick in new operas about war. In September, San Francisco Opera presents the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier and in November, Minnesota Opera presents the world premiere of Silent Night.

In Jehanne Dubrow's poem "VJ Day in Times Square," a husband returned from a modern day war has the same kind of problems relating to his wife as Philip Houston has relating to his adopted mother who is eager to welcome him home.


This is how distances begin--we two,
who hurry like a pair of travelers through
our home, each room a city block,
and often we are miles from talking.
I could wave at you from a kitchen chair
as though in a cafeteria. Upstairs
becomes its own municipality.
Sometimes there is the cordiality
of namelessness, the way one passerby
might intersect then hold another's eye,
smiling before the traffic light turns green.

But opening an art book, I've seen
us in that shot by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Remember? A sailor holds a nurse, his hat
askew so that it seems about to fall,
forever tilting on his head. She's small,
although her body curves like steel, a bridge
suspended in that kiss. There's courage
in collision. Two pedestrians tough,
embracing in a photograph with such
quick ease it's hard to know why when we meet
we're cold as strangers passing on the street.

by Jehanne Dubrow
from Stateside

Copyright © 2010 Jehanne Dubrow


Comments (1)

Grace Cavalieri:

It's wonderful to have Karren as our correspondent to the planet of opera...We on earth would be so lonely without this rich information.

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