A Conversation About the Making of FALLUJAH, the First Opera About Iraq War Experience

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Photos by Asia Morris. The production incorporates the visual artwork of two Iraq War veterans, Michael Herbert and Jon Harguindeguy. 

Fallujah, the first opera made about the Iraq War experience, premiered last week at the Army National Guard in Long Beach. A collaboration between Long Beach Opera, explore.org and KCETLink Media Group, the opera has already been doted on as a rare, authentic, important and pivotal work, a labor of five years intent on addressing the aftermath of war and the struggle many veterans face as they try to reintegrate into society.

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The Post was given a behind-the-scenes introduction to the set, a technological feat incorporating projections of visual artwork made by two Iraq War veterans, at the Armory, as well as a chance to speak with the team behind Fallujah, to listen to the creative goals, aspirations and even doubts, of Christian Ellis, the U.S. Marine whose experience at war and coming home helped shape the production that Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed has described as a “terrifyingly authentic performance.


 

After hours of interviews with American soldiers and Iraqis and a week of lengthy, emotionally tumultuous conversations with Ellis, librettist Heather Raffo, an award-winning Iraqi American playwright, was able to write the libretto to Fallujah as a hopeful spark to a conversation, one about the aftermath of war, and the veterans suffering from PTSD, that Raffo says needs to be had on a national level. As Iraq struggles to find its identity and Americans constantly question their own, Raffo asks, who are you when you return home?

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Long Beach Opera Artistic and General Director Andreas Mitisek describes his vision for the one-of-a-kind site-specific set at the Army National Guard in Long Beach.

“So now we’re talking about what the long term costs are and we made it a conversation,” said Raffo. “A conversation about how do you face your mom? How do you face your mom when all of that is on your mind? Your mom is going, ‘Come back, honey. I want to love you,’ and you’ve just had a suicide attempt. How do you go, ‘This is what’s on my mind.’ So that’s the back and forth.”

Ellis served as a machine gunner in Iraq whose platoon was ambushed and bombed, leaving many members of his troop dead and him with a broken back. Ellis’ unit was responsible for the majority of Area of Operations for the city of Al Fallujah, according to his bio, where he was confronted with the daily combat that left him with the memories, and nightmares, addressed during the opera.

With the support of philanthropist, filmmaker and founder of explore.org founder Charles Annenberg Weingarten, Ellis was able to channel “the horrors of war into a body of work that anyone who suffers could learn and be inspired by,” according to the release.

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From left, Composer Tobin Stokes, veteran Christian Ellis, Librettist Heather Raffo and KCET Senior Vice President of Content and Development Juan Devis, who mediated the discussion.

Upon meeting Raffo for the first time, Ellis divulged that it was a major leap of faith for both of them.

“My biggest fear, I guess was... I don’t want her to see me as a monster or this American that killed her people," he said. 

"[...]but once we did it was apparent very quickly that we trusted each other and that the trust was going to lead to some really intense and intimate conversations and that that was going to lead to be able to give to an audience, to give to Tobin, a story that we hoped would, from my opinion, create a national conversation,” Raffo said.

But why opera? Despite Ellis’ background in the auditory art, trained in classical and jazz since the age of 10, why choose an opera as a medium of communication versus a documentary, a TV show, a movie or a play? It certainly has a lot do with what can’t be said so explicitly, the things that Raffo found during her conversations with Ellis that there simply weren’t any words for, subjects and their details, Ellis noted, that he wouldn’t even tell his partner.

“You gain in opera a scale of sound that is so epic you can somehow touch on the epic scale of war, and it’s not just an orchestra, it’s a human voice,” Raffo said.

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A look at one of the set projections.

Fallujah was composed by Canadian Tobin Stokes who, after reading the libretto, saw a moving story and a unique opportunity to explore both sides of the war, he said. He described American and Iraqi singers performing on stage at the same time, as a mesh of the two cultures finding common ground through sound.

Through the opera, Stokes said he was able to explore, the Iraqi side by "learning more about Middle Eastern music," as well as the "Christian" and "Marine side" by "letting Western music influence the score.”

Ellis, who grew up singing opera, said the art was an outlet, a way of physically releasing explosive emotions he didn’t have the words to describe.

“I’m a combat Marine and I sing opera," he said. "It’s a contradiction most people can’t reconcile, but regardless, opera has that explosiveness, whether it’s a love song, yelling, screaming[...]”

Tenor Jonathan Lacayo, who performs as Wissam, made his American debut with Long Beach Opera in Fallujah. He spoke on the importance of resonance through the human voice, noting that as an opera singer, you’re trained to help your audience feel a connection to the story, to the emotions and background of its players.

“The connection that the human voice has with the human heart has molded who I brought as the portrayal of an Iraqi boy,” he said. “As an opera singer we study how to produce not only a big sound but a resonant sound, and when something clicks in a human being you say, ‘That resonates with me.’ Sound, as Heather was saying, is so needed in the communication.”

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The production incorporates the visual artwork of two Iraq War veterans, Michael Herbert and Jon Harguindeguy. 

But what follows that resonation, that connection with grief and disorientation? What do Ellis, Raffo, Stokes and Mitisek, the numerous veterans and Iraqis interviewed for Fallujah, and the entirety of the team behind the production hope audience members take away from such an unapologetically moving story? It’s really quite simple.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if people walked out and next time they met a veteran they just listened?” said Raffo. “What if they went up and started talking to Afghani or Iraqi refugees in their communities, what if?”

“From a veteran’s point of view I want to say no, you really don’t [care], because you don’t understand,” said Ellis. “This you will understand. You’ll go, ‘I get it, I actually get it.’


 

To purchase tickets for one the remaining five performances, click here or watch the U.S. broadcast premiere tonight on Friday, March 18 at 8:00PM on KCET and Link TV. You can also stream the live broadcast online here and here.

Lastly, look out for the documentary, Making of FALLUJAH, on KCETLink, set to air in May as a part of their award-winning series ARTBOUND.

The National Guard Armory is located at 854 East Seventh Street.

 



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