Atlanta Opera’s ‘Soldier Songs’ captures essence of war stories

The word “opera” may conjure up images of dramatically dying courtesans, heroic tenors and the epic actions of gods and goddesses, but a new production from the Atlanta Opera looks to an unusual source for its inspiration: the words of American combat veterans.

“Soldier Songs” is a 2006 work by renowned contemporary composer David T. Little based on his interviews with veterans of five wars. The Atlanta Opera will give the work its Southeastern premiere at the Rialto Center for the Arts opening on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, and running for four performances.

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“Opera can really do a lot to get below the surface of things,” says Little. “Soldier Songs” was his first operatic work, though Little has since come to be considered one of the country’s most promising and significant young opera composers. “In ‘Soldier Songs,’ I really wanted to try to explore these stories that individuals had told me as deeply as I could. Music is one of the best ways you can do that.”

Little, who has never had any military experience, says the origin of the opera dates back to 2003 when he was asked to come back to his high school to give a talk about being a composer for a career day alongside several other alumni guests who also spoke briefly about their different professions. A former friend, Justen Bennett, whom Little had grown up with, was among the speakers.

“He was talking about being a field medic in Iraq,” recalls Little. “Here were two people who grew up together, went to the same school, but came to very different places in their professions.”

After the talk, as Little was leaving the auditorium, he stopped at a display case that during his own high school days had held athletic trophies and pictures from the prom. “It was full of pictures of people who were overseas in Afghanistan or Iraq,” he says. “I knew all of them. Having these friends who were there, having these pictures on the wall, I started to think about the role of war in my life. I had thought of myself as someone for whom the military and any combat was not part of my world.”

Little recalled uncles who had fought in Vietnam, a stepfather who had done intelligence work in Italy during the Cold War, grandfathers who had been in Europe during World War II.

“It was a very personal moment,” he says. “Looking at my friends and family, I realized combat has been very close to me. I really had to reexamine my relationship to these ideas. That was really the starting point. I decided: This is something I need to explore and because I’m a composer who writes dramatic work, that’s how I’m going to explore it.”

Little began the process of writing “Soldier Songs” by interviewing veterans — friends, people like Justen Bennett he’d grown up with, family members and other contacts who had experienced war in different environments and situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and World War II.

“I wanted to get to the heart of the matter so I went to people who had lived it,” he says.

“As the interviews went on, we inevitably got into more disturbing things,” says Little. “The thing that came up in almost every interview without prompting was that this was something the individuals had never talked about before. After I had done about half the interviews, I realized I needed to use them, that they were the real stories from the real people. It’s not a reproduction by this kid who had never been in combat.”

The resulting work, “Soldier Songs,” is an opera for a single baritone performer based on text and stories from the interviews. The abstract, non-linear narrative follows the life of an American soldier from the age of 6 to 66. The earliest songs are sung by a young boy playing war with a GI Joe toy. The song “Steel Rain” quotes verbatim from an email sent to Little by Bennett about what it feels like to run from incoming ordinance. Other moments are likewise drawn from life, such as Little’s looking in the display case at his high school or a car bombing at Bennett’s base or his uncles’ reflecting on Vietnam.

At several points in the piece, audio files, including the voice of Little’s high school friend Justen Bennett, are played. “I took each song on its own terms,” says Little. In the end, the difficulty of communicating the experience of combat and the often years-long silence of combat veterans became themes of the work.

“We can try to tell the story, we can try to get as close as we can to depicting and understanding for an audience what this is like.” says Little. “You can’t get there; it can’t ever be real enough to convey that in a truly visceral way.”

The music of “Soldier Songs” is as eclectic as Little’s background. Little grew up in New Jersey, performing in musical theater and high school plays and as a drummer in marching band, jazz band and several rock bands, all of which are detectable as influences in his work. The orchestra pit for “Soldier Songs” includes a drum set, and instruments such as the violin and cello are frequently played with pick-ups and distorted through a laptop, even emulating the thrash metal that several interviewees mentioned as the type of music soldiers would listen to in the field.

Throughout the piece, there are touches of heavy metal, old-fashioned vocal styling and electronic music, along with sounds of actual combat and audio files from the interviews. “Each song is its own universe,” says Little.

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“Veterans rarely talk about their experiences with war, except sometimes with other veterans,” says Tomer Zvulun, Atlanta Opera’s creative and artistic director, and the director of “Soldier Songs.” Zvulun is a combat veteran himself. From 1994 to 1997, Zvulun was a first lieutenant in the Israeli Army serving as chief medic for an infantry battalion. “This evening is about permission, permission for veterans to share their experience and hopefully talk about what they experienced, permission for their families and the rest of society to have an inkling, a fragment of an idea of what they experienced. ‘Soldier Songs’ is for and about the people affected by war.”

The work can be an emotional experience for veterans and their families, says Little. Bennett’s mother and sister heard his traumatic stories of combat for the first time at a production of “Soldier Songs.” Whenever the opera is produced, Little says creators try to work with local veterans in a way that allows the piece to be useful. Atlanta performances of “Soldier Songs” will be followed by talkbacks, which will allow area veterans to discuss their experiences.

“By using these interviews, we’re not presuming to be able to tell their story for them,” says Little. “I’m creating a space where they can tell their story. There’s something very positive in that.”

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