American perceptions of war are often built on hot takes, gruesome images, and untruthful power fantasies. But what are the words of the soldiers who actually fought them?
“Soldier Songs,” 8 p.m. April 5 and 6, Paramount Theatre, austinopera.org
Now, Austin Opera is presenting the Central Texas premiere of David T. Little’s prolific, multimedia opera, “Soldier Songs.” The performance will feature the show’s legacy performer, David Adam Moore, a companion film by Bill Morrison, and accompaniment by Little’s own ensemble, Newspeak. The production is the inaugural Opera ATX, Austin Opera’s initiative to feature groundbreaking new works and emerging artists and composers and explore opera in non-traditional venues. “Solider Songs” will be presented at the Paramount Theatre.
The production also culminates five consecutive weekends of new opera by living composers, a cooperative effort of Austin Opera, and the more indie organizations One Ounce Opera and LOLA (Local Opera Local Artists). (See “Does Austin have a new festival of new opera?”)
“Soldier Songs” was originally commissioned in 2006 by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which was Little’s prize for winning the Harvey Gaul Music Competition. Though the commission was only for a 20 minute piece, Little convinced the ensemble to let him compose a whole concert.
“I was in my early 20’s at that point, so they were really taking a risk,” Little reflects. “Not long after, I met the producer Beth Morrison in New York, shared this piece with her, and she became very interested in it and wanted to do a new, fully staged production.”
“Soldier Songs” is a collection of operatic vignettes based on interviews with American veterans of five wars. The inspiration for the piece came from an unlikely reconnection Little had with a high school friend while attending his alma mater’s career day in 2004. Although Little came to speak about his profession as a composer, his friend, Justen Bennett, spoke about his deployment in Iraq as a field medic.
“He was someone I grew up, and the differences in our experiences post-high school were really striking,” says Little.
“I initially was really curious about what were the series of moments, where we made one decision or another, that brought us to where we were at that time?”
At first, Little sought to better understand the veteran experience by researching various texts. “I realized that wasn’t going to do it,” he recalls, “I needed to talk to people.”
And so Little interviewed veteran friends and family members to better understand their perspectives about their service in the military. In the interviews he conducted, Little noticed a commonality among many of the veterans — they had never talked with anyone about their service before.
“That really became the core of the piece,” Little posits, “This idea that [their service] is this impossible thing to talk about. The person who’s experiencing it feels that unless someone has experienced it they won’t understand it, and so they just don’t talk about it. The piece became about the difficulty of the telling of this experience.”
Although Little initially planned use to the interviews as a simple basis for a show, it later became clear to him that the material should have a more direct influence on the production. “I realized that this wasn’t my story to tell,” says Little, “and that I needed to let these individuals tell their stories.”
The recordings of the interviews were consequently woven directly into the show’s composition. Additionally, in order to reflect the varied but thematically-connected experiences of the veterans, “Soldier Songs” eschews a traditional narrative structure in favor of a more anthology-like format. Although the pieces of the show adhere to a three-act setting of Child, Warrior, and Elder, each piece of music has something different to express about the views and struggles of the veterans Little spoke with, as expressed through titles such as, Boom! Bang! Dead! (Rated “T” for Teen), Still Life with Tank and iPod, and War After War.
The show’s rock-infused score also helps deliver the narrative’s powerful, chaotic, and devastating emotional beats. While originally composed for a Pierrot ensemble plus percussion, Little added to the show’s instrumentation and made adjustments in its 2011 revision. As performed by Little’s professional ensemble, Newspeak, “Soldier Songs” now features a drum kit, synthesizers, and other electronic effects on top of its chamber-oriented Pierrot sound. The result is a bombastic presentation that you’d never guess could come from only seven performers.
The opera’s baritone soloist, David Alan Moore, has been performing the show for over 10 years, and delivers a marathon performance.
“It’s pretty much constant singing for an hour,” Little says of the vocal part. “In most operas you’re on stage for 15 minutes and then you go to the dressing room and hang out until your next entrance — it’s all on this one singer.”
While the stage design is fairly minimal, Moore has another external performance challenge. “On the one hand he has to interact with [a movie], and on the other hand he can’t really see it because it’s shining in his face,” Little notes. “It’s a challenging role.”
The accompanying movie by avant-garde filmmaker, Bill Morrison, adorns the screen behind Moore with collages of archival and artistic images that lend color to the otherwise spartan stage. The film works to not just reflect the lyrics being sung by Moore, but to deliver a dynamic visual subtext that approaches the sung material from different angles.
“It’s definitely not Mickey Mousing,” says Little, “There’s a kind of nuance and complexity in the interaction between the film and the score that I think works really well.”
While Little admits that it’s impossible to completely divorce his personal views from the work (and also, politics from war) he argues that “Soldier Songs” is more of a recognition of the voices of veterans, rather than a personal political statement. With this nuanced mission, the show asks audiences to read between the lines of the popular — and often deceptive — narratives of war that exist in our culture.
“There’s a potential when you’re writing a piece [like this] that you’ll just say ‘well war is bad we shouldn’t have war,’ and that just feels very naive and not helpful to me,” says Little. “Sure, we shouldn’t have war, but we’ve had war for the entirety of our existence as a species. It seems unlikely that it’s going to go away. Given that, what can we say about it? What does it do to the people that fight it,” he asks.
“It’s a human question, not a political question.”