By Jason Victor Serinus
SEATTLE – The open heart at the core of Seattle Opera’s production of The Falling and the Rising, an intermission-less, 70-minute chamber opera about America’s wounded warriors, had the power to leave numerous audience members and at least two singers in its small, all-veteran chorus in tears. Seen in Seattle Opera’s Tagney Jones Hall on Nov. 17, the opera managed to convey the physical and psychological scars borne by soldiers dedicated to their missions without glorifying war or descending into facile jingoism.
With music by Zach Redler and libretto by Jerry Dye, The Falling and the Rising focuses on an unnamed Soldier (soprano Tess Altiveros), who is stationed overseas. After completing a tender computer video birthday chat with her 13-year old daughter, the Soldier is wounded by an improvised explosive device. Discovered just in time, she is put into a medically induced coma to save her life. With the aid of K. Brandon Bell’s simple but effective video design, the opera enters into her dream-like haze as she engages with another soldier, Toledo (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Galafa), in an imagined therapy session.
Other conversations, real and imagined, transpire with an Army Ranger (tenor Tim Janecke), doctors (played by Galafa and Janecke), Colonel (bass-baritone Damien Geter), and Homecoming Soldier (baritone Jorell Williams). Thanks in no small part to Ned Canty’s empathetic direction, each shares their own story of physical and psychological wounding, coping, and recovery with courage and dignity.
Redler and Dye present the opera as a series of extended soliloquies and interactions. The music is essentially lyrical and free-flowing, with only the occasional emergence of a solo violin verging on sentimentality. By avoiding harsh dissonances or anything even remotely resembling atonality, Redler’s language speaks to anyone who might shed a tear over much-loved Andrea Bocelli’s “Por ti volare,” a.k.a “Time to Say Goodbye.”
The production, which originated at Opera Memphis’ Playhouse on the Square, was a good fit for Tagney Hall’s high-ceilinged, 318-seat layout in which the audience’s wooden risers face a flat stage. The set was sparse, with camouflage netting, a series of irregularly tiered levels, and the all-important suspended video screen adding variety to the action on the stage floor. All voices save those of the chorus that entered at opera’s end were amplified in order to match levels with conductor Michael Sakir’s eleven-member orchestra, hidden behind the set.
The presentation eschewed simple answers. As the Homecoming Soldier sings from his wheelchair, “There’s nothing else; there’s just this.” We are left with the sense that, through the support of her comrades, the Soldier manages to soldier on. Yet, It’s a Wonderful Life this is not.
The cast, which was racially diverse per Seattle Opera’s ongoing commitment to widening opera’s relevance and reach, was exceptionally strong. Seattle native Altiveros, who was onstage much of the time, melded a fine voice that resounded of inner strength with a sympathetic countenance that bespoke complete identification with her role. As emotions grew more intense, and notes rose higher in the scale, the warmth of her portrayal drove the opera’s message straight to the heart. While Altiveros’ online bio indicates that her performances in contemporary and early music have been primarily on the West Coast, her triumph in a role that is, by its very nature, the antithesis of a prima donna vehicle declared her potential for a major career.
Although it was hard to discern a singer’s ultimate strength and big-house potential due to the amplification, San Diego-born Galafa made a fine impression in her smaller role and blended beautifully with Altiveros in their duets. Illinois-born Janecke, who has been singing a lot in the Pacific Northwest, and New York-born Williams, whose career is bi-coastal, were equally solid and moving. The one voice that seemed even bigger than the electronics that filtered it belonged to Virginia-born Getter, who has sung the Undertaker in Porgy & Bess at Seattle Opera and the Met. To sound designer Robertson Witmer’s credit, vocal timbres sounded natural and full rather than processed.
How an opera company frames a production is central to how it is perceived. Seattle’s production originated at Opera Memphis, which characterized its sole performance this past April as “an opera that would capture the indomitable spirt of our U.S. military veterans and shed light on the inspirational power of their often overlooked stories – stories of family, service, and sacrifice in a period of great uncertainty.” Seattle Opera’s program, in turn, includes a four-paragraph statement from former defense secretary Robert M. Gates, who currently lives in the Puget Sound Region.
Curiously, Seattle Opera’s program booklet either failed to mention, or buried in a place I could not find, that the opera was a co-commission of the Seattle Opera, San Diego Opera, Arizona Opera, Opera Memphis, Texas Christian University (where the opera originated in 2018), Seagle Music Colony, and the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldier’s Chorus. It was also omitted that The Falling and the Rising is dedicated to Sergeant First Class Ben Hilgert of the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldier’s Chorus, who envisioned the opera after receiving inspiration from Opera Memphis’ Ghosts of Crosstown project in 2014.
As a manifestation of the power of community, the opera’s run was complemented by post-show discussions with veterans, art and music therapists, and the co-founders of the Seattle-based Red Badge Project that “encourages soldiers to rediscover their personal voice using the fundamentals of storytelling.” Thirteen chorus members, all Puget Sound veterans who work with the area’s Path with Art program, were given their own page in the program to tell their stories. Some of their experiences with mental illness, unemployment, drug addiction, and domestic abuse registered in their faces and bodies, and helped bring the entire audience to its feet at the close.
The opera concludes its five-performance run on Nov. 24. For information and tickets, go here.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.