When San Diego Opera decided to expand the scope of its season beyond the boundaries of grand opera, they could hardly have chosen a work more profoundly different than David T. Little’s Soldier Songs. A compact chamber opera with a singing cast of one; a subject as current as this morning’s headlines; a score written by a composer who is also a rock band percussionist, and a three-dimensional multi-media set design—this is Soldier Songs, which opens Friday, November 11, 2016.
“This opera does not take place in some exotic, far-off land,” explained baritone David Adam Moore, who sings the archetypal title character. “It is immediate to our contemporary American culture, to current events we all experience.”
“Essentially, opera is an emotional journey taken to tell the story, and the music elevates that experience,” said stage director Tomer Zvulun, who presented this production of Soldier Songs last season at Atlanta Opera, where he is General and Artistic Director. “Soldier Songs is like other operas in that sense, but its emotional journey is more immediate and raw, because it is about people outside on the street, not some 19th-century courtesan or ancient Egyptian princess.”
Ironically, this opera’s subject is a story hidden in plain view. After composer David T. Little spent some five years interviewing veterans and current members of the military, he wove their responses into the opera’s libretto. Little noted that nearly every soldier’s personal tale began with the reservation, “I’ve never talked to anyone about this.”
Over the course of the opera, Little exposes the view of soldiering first from the child’s perspective, then the state of the young combatant, and finally from the older veteran’s point of view.
“To the youth, war seems exciting, like some adventurous video game,” explained Zvulun, “but when the young soldier is actually involved in war, he experiences the pain of loss and fear of death—lives of friends destroyed a mere five feet away.”
Both Moore and Zvulun agreed that the opera’s point of view, however, was in no way anti-war. “When I was sent the score and libretto in 2008 in preparation for the New York workshop premiere, I recall from my first read through that the perspective was balanced and completely without judgement: neither blindly flag-waving nor baldly decrying that war is terrible,” Moore said. “But it does explain why someone would want to be a soldier and go to war.”
“I don’t think the artist should bring an agenda to a subject, because when you do, you will lose people,” added Zvulun.
An important feature of Soldier Songs is its unwritten second act, when Moore and members of the production staff return to the stage after the opera’s conclusion for a discussion with veterans and also members of the audience about the issues the opera has brought forth. Zvulun recounted Atlanta Opera’s experience with the second act discussion on their opening night.
“We had a contingent from the Atlanta Veterans Business Association in attendance, and I cannot forget the veteran who spoke first, declaring he would never talk about his military experiences, but by the end of the evening, he had said more than any other participant. That is really the point of the opera—to allow the closed mouth to speak.”
Little’s Soldier Songs is San Diego Opera’s first alternative opera offering in what the company has named the Shiley dētour Series, staged at the Balboa Theatre adjacent to Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. Although the San Diego company has successfully used this venue for recitals, Soldier Songs will be the first opera presented in this venue that seats about 1/3 of the Civic Theatre’s 3,000-seat capacity.
Zvulun noted that Atlanta Opera was now in its third year of its alternative opera offerings, which his company has named the Discoveries Series. Atlantans have taken to this new series, he noted, and the two operas slated for the spring of 2017 have already sold out.
“It was our goal to increase the artistic risk and at the same time bring down the cost,” he explained. “An advantage of chamber opera is the ability to take productions to different parts of the city. So we will present Mozart’s early comic opera La finta giardiniera (The Secret Gardener) in the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Astor Piazzolla’s contemporary tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires in a burlesque house. Our goal has been to develop new audiences, especially with works that have modern appeal, so that some of this audience may graduate to our main stage productions of the standard repertory.
“Opera has many more opportunities to reinvent itself,” Zvulun observed, “and in this production of Soldier Songs we have used high technology to our benefit.” But as addicted to digital entertainment as the culture may be, Zvulun is confident that opera as a medium still retains certain advantages. “It is a highly visual live art form, and that alchemy of energy between stage, pit, and audience cannot be replaced by electronic simulation. I think opera gives audiences a richer emotional pay-off than binge watching Game of Thrones.”