‘Fallujah’ Addresses Lingering Trauma From The Iraq War

Philip Houston (LaMarcus Miller, right) and American soldiers in the Long Beach Opera premiere of 'Fallujah.' (Production photos by Keith Ian Polakoff)
Philip Houston (LaMarcus Miller, right) and US soldiers in the Long Beach Opera premiere of ‘Fallujah.’
(Production photos by Keith Ian Polakoff)
By Richard S. Ginell

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Long Beach Opera has never shied away from confronting its audience with big issues and controversy; after all, it was the first Southern California company to violate the unofficial blackballing of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, among many other breakthroughs. With that in mind, it should come as no shock that this brave company on a shoestring would return to the Middle East to take on the world premiere of Tobin Stokes’ Fallujah, the first opera to be written about the Iraq War and the consequences for those who were caught in it.

Soprano Suzann Hanson plays Philips' distraught mother.
Soprano Suzan Hanson plays Philip’s distraught mother.

Let me say at the outset that this is not a great opera, but it is an important opera that basically does its job. It pummels its audience with the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over its 78-minute length, and it doesn’t take sides; both Iraqi and American families are represented.

The authority of Fallujah’s point of view is strengthened by the backgrounds of some key members of its creative team. Ex-Marine Christian Ellis’ experiences in Fallujah served as the inspiration for the story; two more war veterans, Jon Harguindeguy and Michael Hebert, were art designers for the production; librettist Heather Raffo is an Iraqi-American. The piece had a rather prolonged and troubled gestation starting in 2011: four workshops at City Opera Vancouver, a cancelled premiere there due to lack of funds, and further workshops at places like the Kennedy Center, Georgetown University, and the Noor Theatre until finally Long Beach Opera patched together a working edition for the world premiere March 12 (I caught the second performance the afternoon of March 13).

Essentially, Fallujah centers upon the fictional USMC Lance Corporal Philip Houston — a character partly based on Ellis — who is enduring a 72-hour holding period in a stateside veterans hospital following his third suicide attempt. He has constant flashbacks to the horrors he experienced. A buddy in his platoon sings about his infant child back home and is cut down in an instant by sniper fire. An Iraqi boy, Wissam, and his mom are forced out of their centuries-old home by the war (according to Fallujah’s compensation commissioner, 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 homes were destroyed during Operation Phantom Fury in 2004). Marines banter in often coarse language that the veterans tell us is authentic.

Baritone LaMarcus Miller is powerful as Philip.
Baritone LaMarcus Miller is powerful as Philip.

The lives of all involved are never the same; their torn-up families suffer as well. Unspoken in the libretto, but subliminally present, is the realization that the suffering inflicted upon ordinary people was caused by perhaps the biggest foreign policy blunder in U.S. history — invading on false pretenses a country that, by all accounts, had nothing to do with the terrorist attack on 9/11. Was it all for nothing? The opera doesn’t say, but a comment by a reporter at the talkback session after the performance, that Fallujah is now being partially occupied by ISIS, clearly unnerved the war veterans in the crew.

Alas, Canadian composer Stokes’ score for an 11-piece chamber group is the weak link in the opera — relentlessly melodramatic most of the way, acting like little more than a mundane film score. Some quasi-Middle Eastern influences emerge briefly during the scene with Wissam and his mom (one can hear the strumming of an oud), and a quote of the “Dies irae” chant (used by Berlioz, Rachmaninoff, and others) runs through Philip’s mother’s aria near the end as she sings of her anguish. Aside from these strains and an effective buildup to cacophony early in the piece as flashback images of war swirl around the room, nothing else registers.

Once again, Long Beach Opera chose an unlikely performance space for an opera — unlikely in a conventional sense but perfectly appropriate in this case — a bare-bones meeting hall with a vaulted, steel-strutted ceiling at the Long Beach Army National Guard. The production, designed by stage director Andreas Mitisek (also LBO’s artistic and general director), took place on a series of jerry-built platforms, with the chamber group led by Kristof Van Grysperre hidden behind a scrim on the left and a military Humvee parked on the right. A short black-and-white film in which servicemen and their wives talked about PTSD set the stage before the opera started. (On March 13, there was a half-hour delay of the start due to the replacement of a malfunctioning generator, during which the resourcefully multi-tasking Mitisek vamped by interviewing Stokes, Ellis, and Raffo).

Landscapes inspired by photographs of Fallujah are projected on the set.
Landscapes inspired by photographs of Fallujah are projected on the set.

Landscapes inspired by photographs of Fallujah were projected onto the set, the most striking being one where the outlines of the city were lit up in electric green. Baritone LaMarcus Miller made a powerful vocal impression as Philip; he even bore some physical resemblance to the real Ellis. Soprano Suzan Hanson, a reliable LBO presence in production after production, threw herself emotionally into the role of Philip’s mother, and the singers portraying fellow Marines swaggered, swore, and showed some humanity in the contrapuntal trio of phone calls to their families in the U.S. The voices and instruments were amplified; sometimes, in climactic moments, they grated shrilly within the walls of the meeting hall.

Fallujah is a difficult opera to enjoy, at least upon a first viewing. But that is beside the point, for it may be more important to simply endure this opera and to feel the everlasting pain of PTSD that many soldiers and their families carry throughout their lives after a war, a vicarious experience which does come through despite the pedestrian score. The whole thing goes by in one long, uninterrupted sweep without intermission, as it should in order to maintain the intended intensity.

I think it is going to be a controversial piece because its treatment of Iraqis as real human beings clashes with attitudes held by some in this country. Hopefully, in a more enlightened time, it will be considered a period piece, but given the sad realities of human nature, it may always be relevant — and thus, worth attention.

In any case, Fallujah will not be confined to a Long Beach armory. There will be further performances March 17, 18, 19 (two performances), and 20. KCET-TV in Southern California is set to broadcast the March 18 performance, and it will be made available on the Dish Network. Also Mitisek doesn’t rule out the possibility of Fallujah traveling to his other company, Chicago Opera Theater.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.