Celebrate Veterans Day With San Diego Opera’s ‘Soldier Songs’
San Diego Opera kicks off dētour series with modern opera
Friday, November 11, 2016
Photo by Katie Schoolov
David T. Little, 'Soldier Songs' composer
Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter
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."
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.
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