Tobin Stokes’ ‘Fallujah’: Hearts and minds in conflict at Long Beach Opera

by Natalie Mann, Lister reviewer

Opera has a long and storied history of exposing society’s darkest secrets and turning the artistic forces of music to recount tales that many fear to whisper. The eye-opening opera Fallujah tells a brilliant story based on the life of US Marine Christian Ellis. The libretto and music blur the line where humanism ends and war begins.

Long Beach Opera’s Artistic and General Director Andreas Mitisek has never been one to shy away from controversial works or interpretations, giving LBO its special niche in a world of repetitive opera seasons. He recounted to the audience that he had been seeking out a work that would fit into LBO’s unique season when he found Fallujah, which had only been presented in workshop format. Working with both the composer and librettist, the opera got its world premiere performances here in Southern California, starting March 12.

Librettist Heather Raffo is not shy either, facing head-on the difficult question of the true toll of today’s wars on the soldiers who fight, and those who are caught in the conflict. Using many interviews to fuel her writing, Raffo leads us into the mind of the protagonist, Philip, played by LaMarcus Miller, to see his inner struggle as he languishes in a hospital during a 72-hour suicide watch.

Tobin Stokes intentionally takes the listener down particular paths with an intermingling of classical, rock and Middle Eastern styles. Never heavy-handed with motives, the music seems to deliver an impactful and sobering message which adds a poignancy to the words of the characters. Kristof Van Grysperre led the compact orchestra deftly, delivering the maximum dynamic punch at all the right times.

Arnold Livingston Geis, Jason Switzer, Gregorio González. Credit: Keith Ian Polakoff
Arnold Livingston Geis, Jason Switzer, Gregorio González. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

The audience was immersed in the performance upon entering the venue, an active armory, where they were handed programs by military cadets. Clever use of projection throughout the performance enabled the audience to feel they were fully participating in both nightmares and sweet remembrances during the show. The opening video showing brief interviews with Marines set a sober tone for the viewer, as speakers recounted, “not a day went by where we didn’t worry about dying…,” and how the smell of “diesel fuel and jasmine” took a former soldier back to Fallujah.

The cast’s commitment to the story is palpable. Their work with the Marine consultants led them to powerful portrayals as warriors caught in the conflict abroad, as well as the conflict of Philip’s mind. The opera immediately opens with the element of “survivor’s guilt”, as Philip is alive, but wants to feel “more than numb.” Colleen, Philip’s adopted mother, played by Suzan Hanson, both brings reality to Philip and stands as the barrier to his return to the real world.

Todd Strange’s character, Taylor, breaks through the fragile line of sanity as Philip’s best friend. Taylor boasts that enemies are beasts and treats civilians harshly in Fallujah, yet delivers a melancholy aria about his daughter, who is about to be born back home. He wonders, “Is she gonna see this war written on me?” Strange rendered a heartbreaking and vocally glorious, but fatally flawed character. Other Marines in the field, played by Gregorio Gonzalez, Jason Switzer and Arnold Livingston Geis are ever-present and haunting to Philip.

Wissam, the Iraqi boy sung by Jonathan Lacayo, is torn between the love of his home and obeying his mother Shatha (Ani Maldjian), who wants to flee Fallujah. The boy is flawed as well, seeking out Kassim (Zeffin Quinn Hollis) to explore how to fight against the occupiers, but never committing himself until the climax of the show.

Suzan Hanson, Jonathan Lacayo, Ani Maldjian, LaMarcus Miller. Credit: Keith Ian Polakoff
Suzan Hanson, Jonathan Lacayo, Ani Maldjian, LaMarcus Miller. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

Highlights of the opera include an affecting and emotional duet between the mothers, who sing “come home” and “you don’t have to come home” to their sons. Hanson’s Colleen delivers a soulful and gut-wrenching aria to her son Philip, saying “We’ve been here before” and promising, “I will listen” before finally admitting that, “…this war has made a monster out of me.” The story keenly reveals that the pain of war is not limited to those who fight, but often includes those who care for them when the changed soldiers return.

LBO’s decision to mount this world premiere is important, especially considering the contentious political climate that surrounds the nation today. The solid and talented cast delivers an important message to us all, that the true cost of war can never be calculated as men and women suffer silently at home.

Featured image at top:  LaMarcus Miller as Philip.
Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 8.51.35 PMFallujah continues through March 20, and will be broadcast on KCET-TV on March 18…

Next up for Long Beach Opera:  Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, April 8-17

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