An Iraq War Opera Finds A Vein Of Empathy : Deceptive Cadence Fallujah is based on the experiences of a real Marine, who lost friends and more as a gunner in Iraq. The show's libretto was written by an Iraqi-American.
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An Iraq War Opera Finds A Vein Of Empathy

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An Iraq War Opera Finds A Vein Of Empathy

An Iraq War Opera Finds A Vein Of Empathy

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A new opera tells the story of those who fought in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004. It's got all of opera's classic themes - love, passion and violence. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The opera begins in a VA hospital. The main character sits facing the door. He's a vet on suicide watch.


KALEB COICOU: (As Philip Houston, singing) Nothing hurts, too dangerous to be alive, dangerous to be outside when nothing hurts.

CHRISTIAN ELLIS: The opening scene was a real reality for me.

ULABY: That's Christian Ellis who inspired this opera called simply "Fallujah." That's where he lost some buddies back in 2004 and where a roadside bomb fractured his spine. When Ellis got home, he was physically OK, but he was still wounded.

ELLIS: I gave up on life. I tried killing myself.

ULABY: Four times. Ellis had lost who he was. Before he'd enlisted in the Marines, Ellis had studied opera.

ELLIS: I literally forgot how to sing. I forgot what notes were. I forgot how to breathe.

ULABY: Ellis was homeless for a while. In 2008, he was invited to a retreat for soldiers with PTSD. There he met a philanthropist who decided to commission an opera based on his experiences, but Ellis' joy soon turned sour. He recalls his thoughts when he learned an Iraqi-American had been hired to write the libretto.

ELLIS: I know she's not the enemy, but I just - I can't put that to rest.

ULABY: Now he's sitting right next to the playwright, Heather Raffo. Before getting this commission, Raffo had already created a one-woman show about Iraq after the first Gulf War. When Ellis met Raffo, he said he had no idea what to expect.

ELLIS: And then she just had this way of calming me down naturally, whether it was listening or asking the questions that I didn't know how to answer, but I answered anyway.

ULABY: Their first conversation lasted 10 hours, and Raffo started interviewing other Iraq war veterans. Hearing their stories, though, was not easy.

HEATHER RAFFO: Because almost all my family's out of Iraq. It's not their home anymore. So a hundred family members are down to four and the rest are scattered across the world and I'm pissed.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Now they shoot anyone walking, anyone breathing...

ULABY: With composer Tobin Stokes, Raffo crafted an opera with multiple points of view, Iraqis and Americans. I wondered if she'd worried when talking to Marines about hearing what they'd done to people who could've been her family. The playwright began to cry. Christian Ellis reached over to hold her hand.

RAFFO: This was the hardest thing I had to do. I didn't know if I should do it. I mean, spending a life in the theater, your job is to humanize.

ULABY: But Raffo did not at first want to humanize the U.S. military.

RAFFO: I refused to, and then I knew that that was wrong. I knew I had to, and I thought this is my opportunity to be a better human being and to be a better artist and to love.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Man up. It's clear the whole of Fallujah, door to door...

ELLIS: You know, there are some scenes in the opera that I just - it never in a million years dawned on me that when we are getting ready to do our push, what would they be thinking about?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing) Half the city, carrying their homes on their back.

ULABY: Over the course of working on this opera, the Iraqi-American librettist says she was surprised by how much she ended up connecting with vets.

RAFFO: As soon as I get with them, we're talking about the reality; we're talking about how hard it is. Like, they're the only other people in America that actually get it.

ULABY: The Long Beach Opera recruited vets for production accuracy and even to help with design.

MICHAEL HEBERT: This is how they teach you at boot camp. They shove it in your elbow and then they - nice and tight. It's got to be right in the cup of your shoulder.

ULABY: Iraq War vet Michael Hebert is teaching singers who play Marines how to hold their weapons.

HEBERT: There you go.

ULABY: He was in combat in Fallujah, and he corrected me when I asked how it feels to be part of this opera.

HEBERT: It's a part of me. I'm not a part of this; this is a part of me.


LAMARCUS MILLER: (As Philip Houston, singing) It takes 10 minutes to get permission to kill a hadji holding an RPG.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Forget it, Houston.

ULABY: The main character, Lance Cpl. Philip Houston, is played by Lamarcus Miller.

MILLER: Until I got the role, I was completely oblivious and completely ignorant that this was even an issue.

ULABY: Now Miller thinks about veterans with PTSD all the time.

MILLER: I'll walk down the street and Philip will come into my head and say, I could kill them or I could snap his neck. They're sheep.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) He might be wounded.

MILLER: (As Philip Houston, singing) He might be loaded.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) He's a boy.

ULABY: You would think it be cathartic to have an opera about your experiences at war, but getting "Fallujah" staged has been a long and excruciating process for Christian Ellis, and he was fearful this production might dredge up old feelings.

ELLIS: I spent these years getting over this, and the next thing I know this is happening again. I don't want to go through that pain. I barely survived it. I mean, I barely survived it.

ULABY: He did. Recently, he has started singing again, really singing. Ellis tried out for a men's choir in Phoenix, Ariz., where he lives, and he got in. And Ellis was blown away just a few weeks ago when he met the opera singers who play him and his buddies.

ELLIS: They kept asking me, why don't you sing? You know, you should sing. You know, we know people in Phoenix. We can help you get a voice teacher. And just that fast, that little spark came back, and I felt excited again, motivated. Though I'm not serving anymore, to me that can give me that purpose that I was looking for.

ULABY: One of the hardest things for Ellis since coming home was losing part of his identity as a fighter.

ELLIS: For a while, it's - I'm a Marine. I'm a combat Marine. Now it's - I want to say I sing opera (laughter).

ULABY: "Fallujah" closes at the Long Beach Opera this weekend, but you can watch it online or on the Dish Network this evening. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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