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Celebrate Veterans Day With San Diego Opera's 'Soldier Songs'

David Adam Moore sings the solo role in "Soldier Songs," an opera that explores the experiences of the modern soldier.
Katie Schoolov
David Adam Moore sings the solo role in "Soldier Songs," an opera that explores the experiences of the modern soldier.

San Diego Opera kicks off dētour series with modern opera

Celebrate Veterans Day With San Diego Opera's 'Soldier Songs'
GUEST: David T. Little, 'Soldier Songs' composer Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

You're listening to midday edition on KPBS. San Diego Opera launches its new detour series at the Balboa theater. With soldier signs. His performance includes an hour-long Opera a 30 minute panel discussion. KPBS was reporter speaks with composer David little about creating a new modern opera. On the composure of soldier signs. We are at the sound check just before the dress rehearsal. Here at the Balboa theater. Tell me what soldier signs is. What people expect? It explores the life of a soldier from the age of six age of 6 to 66. Each song different experiences told to me by veterans I interviewed. I never talk about this with anybody. I was at one of the opera listening tours, and when it was suggested -- would you be interested in an opera that deals with contemporary issues like PTSD -- people were not very interested in that initial thing. What is the hurdle that an opera like this has to overcome with opera fans were used to more traditional styles? Is a new opera which is asking the question what can operate the. It is different than a grand Opera. Is amplified -- this piece is about an hour-long. Is very compressed and intense. There is a sound design component. At the same time in embraces many of the traditions of Opera. A real attention to singing and beautiful vocal writing. And operatic ideas and emotions that are operatic in scale. It is really trying to explore the opportunity. It is exciting San Diego Opera is opening this series with this piece. Knowing that the whole point of the series to explore exactly that question. There is only one finger who is basically doing all of the different roles are part of characters -- One finger David more -- a baritone. Each of the songs explores a different perspective along this experience. The first song is a young boy playing with G.I. Joe figures. The song later -- which is taken from an email sent to me by my friend. We discussed the feeling of running from incoming ordinance. You have war after war which is a veteran many years after combat reflecting on the experience. He tried to represent all stages of a life engaging with this issue. Each of the movements is taken from interviews, the ideas are taken from interviews I conducted with veterans who are new and grew up with. You get very personal and very specific snapshots into the experience. That my hope will accumulate into a larger picture that will leave the audience something to think about as they leave. It tries to not get answers. It tries to ask questions. My hope is that the audience will take those questions with them when they leave. And think about them in their own pace. You wrote this 10 years ago, what inspired you to put this together? We were dealing with post-9/11 combat. I had a lot of friends who had enlisted. At the time, for me I had a hard time understanding that choice. I wanted to understand it better. I zoomed out for my friends and realized I had family members who had been in the military. And I started to realize they had experiences we had never discussed. It became clear that it was difficult for me to know them -- these members of my family without knowing at least something of the experiences they had. I reached out and asked if they could sit down with me to talk about it. And let me record them. The voices are heard in the peace -- the interviews are used in the electronics. You do here the voices of my uncles and friends. Telling their stories. And dental stories were put into poetic lyrics that make up each of the songs. Explained the interview process you used to gather the information. With the interviews I wanted to have people talk. Tried to not interfere too much. I tried to not guide the interviews. Was interesting early on is that in each of these interviews, I was told that this was the first time these individuals have talked about their experience. That became a thread throughout the piece. Now in this current staging of it, that is really the core theme. These are experiences that often are not talked about by veterans. Because either they don't feel like other people who have not experienced them will understand or it is too difficult. That lack of communication, really prevents in some cases healing cut and in some cases understanding from those family members or friends. I hope that the piece will contribute in some way to an opening of those discussions between friends or family members. I have heard the term political connected to the opera. Is a political in the sense it is reacting to current events or just in terms of the issues that it raises? Is difficult to have a piece about war that doesn't have some political component. All art is political in some way. Where it differs is that it is not partisan. Is not trying to prove a point about war. It is not trying to say one war is justified or unjustified. One political party is right or wrong. He would try to focus on the experience of the individual within this broader apparatus. This broader experience. In some cases including the political implications. Is really about the experience of the individual. How they go through this experience and what they take with them. How they are changed by it. It tries to keep distance is the word -- from any kind of real political capital issue. Thank you very much. Thank you.

San Diego Opera kicks off its new Shiley dētour Series Friday with David T. Little's contemporary "Soldier Songs."

David Bennett, general director of San Diego Opera, created the dētour series as a kind of sidebar to the grand opera that the company stages each year. He points to the definition of “detour” as "a route that is different from the ordinary" and that describes the new series of productions that are outside of traditional grand opera.

Composer Little began working on "Soldier Songs" 10 years ago as he tried to understand why many of his friends had decided to sign up for the military after 9/11.

"'Soldier Songs' explores the life of a soldier from the age of six to 66, each song exploring different experiences that were told to me by veterans that I interviewed," Little said. "The voices are heard in the piece, interviews are used in the electronics so you do hear the voices of my uncles and my friends telling their stories. And then those stories were also put into poetic lyrics that make up each of the songs."

The first song has a little boy playing with G.I. Joe figures. Later, another called 'Steel Rain" is composed from emails sent to Little from a friend who described the feeling of running from an incoming ordinance that soldiers refer to as "steel rain."

The opera opens with a voice that speaks "I never talk about this with anyone," followed by a title card with text saying the same thing, which appears projected on the set's walls. As more voices chime in with comments about a soldier's experience of war, more text fills the stage. The set design is very abstract and is constructed of boxes that provide a surface that can be transformed into anything through video projection.

"The idea behind the set design is to recreate the world of the soldier, psychologically and also physically, with multimedia and projection," said series director Tome Zvulun.

"We use it almost like a blank canvas set that has different surfaces that allows us to project on them and also physically move around them. And it’s very effective because in the Army a part of the experience is overcoming obstacles, especially in training, and there’s an element in the show of both that and the toy blocks because before the soldier goes to war he is portrayed as a little kid and the world of that little kid is comprised of the those toy blocks that then become obstacles for the soldier."

"Soldier Songs" is a new kind of opera that questions what opera can be. That is exactly what Bennett wanted his dētour series to do.

"I think first that opera can be expressed in a lot of ways," Bennett said. "That opera can break some of the preconceived barriers and make people think, 'Oh this is a different kind of experience than I imagined.' That it is dramatically compelling and engaging. It’s short, which I think some people are going to be excited to see but also that opera can be very immediate and it can tell our stories, not of other people or other generations or cultures, but really tell our story and reach us in very profound ways."

Behind The Scenes: San Diego Opera's 'Soldier Songs'

Performing an immediate contemporary opera about war also means it touches on political issues.

"I think it’s difficult to have a piece about war and the experience of being in a war that doesn’t have some political component," Bennett said. "I think where it differs is that it isn’t partisan. It’s not trying to prove a point. It’s not trying to say one war is justified or one political party is right or wrong. It really tries to focus on the experience of the individual within the broader apparatus, broader experience. How they go through this experience and what they take with them, how they are changed by it."

As a result, the opera provides very personal and specific snapshots into the experience of being a soldier, the composer said.

"My hope is [these snapshots] will accumulate through the evening into a larger picture that will leave the audience something to think about as they leave," Little said. "It tries to not give answers as to ask questions, and my hope is that the audience will take those question with them when they leave. And think about them in their own time at their own pace."

"One of the important things for people to come to see the show is please stay for act two," said Zyulun, the director. "Act one provides the tool to create catharsis and in act two, the actual panel, the actual discussion of soldiers and veterans about their experiences is the most profound and affecting result of that first part and so resist the temptation to go after that show is over because the second part is important."

The series opens on Veterans Day in the hopes that it will pay tribute to the military community here in San Diego, the opera's general director Bennett said.

"My greatest hope is that we can honor soldiers, active military and veterans by producing this piece and again by those of us that don’t serve, giving us a little bit of a glimpse of the impact of combat on the lives of those too and by doing that honoring the military," he said.

Zvulun concluded, "I think what’s wonderful about art - any kind of art - is that it can provoke people and make them think and this opera is significant in that it really does that work. It allows the public a window into a life of a soldier and that is really important."

San Diego Opera's "Soldier Songs" has performances Friday through Sunday, Nov 13. KPBS will present a live TV broadcast on Saturday at 7 p.m.