When the Long Beach Opera unveils the first opera composed about the Iraq War experience, it will be the culmination of a painful eight-year journey to heal the soldier who inspired it, while at the same time offering civilian audiences a more visceral understanding of battle and its aftermath.
Fallujah—written by Heather Raffo, a New York-based librettist of Iraqi descent, and composed by Tobin Stokes—was inspired by the experiences of retired U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Christian Ellis, a machine gunner whose platoon was ambushed and bombed in the 2004 battle of Fallujah, Iraq. One of the few survivors, Ellis endured a broken back and debilitating PTSD.
The opera takes place over 72 hours in a veteran’s hospital following a marine’s third suicide attempt. While his mother waits to see him, the soldier must first contend with the demons conjured by his time in battle.
“I believe those who did serve will see this as authentic, and those who’ve never been to war will have a more realistic idea of what it is like to endure combat and continue to live with it,” says Ellis, who served as the opera’s story consultant.
The seven performances run March 12 through March 20. On March 18, the production will air live on KCET in Los Angeles, and simul-stream at KCET.org/Fallujah, LinkTV on the DirecTV and Dish Network, and Explore, an Annenberg Foundation philanthropic media organization. A KCETLink documentary on the making of the opera will premiere on KCET and Link TV on Memorial Day. Tickets for the live event can be purchased here.
A daily average of 22 veterans commit suicide—more than die in combat. And PTSD effects not just soldiers, but their families, friends, and communities, and the health care industry.
“It’s a story that’s socially relevant and has been told in many ways, but opera enables the music and story to open up on an emotional level that hasn’t been experienced yet, and to people not aware of these issues,” says Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s artistic and general director. “Sometimes it’s more meaningful than reading it in a newspaper. We hope this will open up more avenues for discussion about this topic.”
Before joining the marines at 19, Ellis had studied classical and jazz voice and trumpet. After returning, listening to opera was often a source of solace. Philanthropist and filmmaker Charles Annenberg Weingarten, the founder of Explore, met him at a retreat for recovering veterans in 2008 and encouraged him to write an opera about his war experience. Weingarten connected him with the City Opera Vancouver, which brought in Raffo and Stokes and workshopped the production in 2012. (Although an upstate New York company mounted an Iraq War-themed opera prior to this production, Fallujah was written and workshopped first.) Two other workshops at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the University of Tampa, ongoing tweaks, and networking followed, until Mitisek—who’d been looking for an opera to tackle this subject matter—reached out in 2014.
In crafting the story, Raffo’s biggest challenge was intertwining reality and memory to put the audience in the shoes of a person with PTSD. She achieved this by giving equal weight to those realities, having people from his war memories appear in his hospital room as daymares.
“I thought about the kind of conversation I wanted the audience to be having with the show, the kind of national conversation we needed to have as a country, and the conversations I’d had with other marines and their family members about what they were dealing with,” says Raffo. “What came up was the people with PTSD not talking about it with the ones they love. They have to come back home to intimate relationships after having experienced intense violence and trauma. The narrative became, how do you do that?
“My work in the past focused on telling war stories through theater from the Iraqi perspective,” says Raffo, who has an Iraqi father and American mother. “This enabled me to learn what it was like from an American military perspective. I knew the costs of war intimately from the Iraqi side of my family. But those costs are as prevalent with the men and women returning from Iraq.”
The bicultural landscape offered Tobin a great swath of musical influences, tonalities, and instruments, which include an electric guitar and Iraqi oud.
“The setting presented a tremendously unique opportunity,” he says. “I learned about Middle Eastern music and what Christian listened to on his iPod. They were opposing ends of a palette that could be used as influences to paint this world.”
While the project gave Ellis purpose, it forced him to confront issues he wasn’t prepared for, against a long arduous backdrop of realizing a creative passion project on a professional scale.
He was also ill-equipped to deal the Hollywood mindset, mercurial nature of production, adjusting expectations, and promises that don’t pan out. He moved to Los Angeles to make contacts and prepared for a sprint instead of a marathon. With no job or sustainable infrastructure and still contending with PTSD, Ellis ended up going through his finances and spent some time homeless, before getting help.
“I nearly destroyed my life pursing this,” he says. “I had no choice but to face my demons. But had I not gone through what I did, I don’t think I would have been aware of some of the issues, and come out of it a stronger person. [Raffo] saw a bit of that and tried to put it in the opera.”
Raffo believes some catharsis will come with these performances. “What Christian hasn’t had a chance to experience yet is the fruition,” she says. “We’re still in process. The first time he’ll see it onstage—in full production in front of an audience—and reap the joys is the world premiere on Saturday, and talking with audience members afterward.
“The ups and downs are brutal enough for any artist, but he’s just served in the worst battles of the Iraq War and is recovering from PTSD,” adds Raffo. “He’s only now getting to the good part, seeing what his artform can do.”