On November 16, the reincarnated New York City Opera (NYCO) gave the New York premiere, and first of four performances here, of composer Tobin Stokes and librettist Heather Raffo’s powerful chamber opera “Fallujah” (2016), at the intimate Duke, on West 42nd Street, before an audience that included a number of veterans and their service dogs. W’s Iraqi War was horrible. The post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that veterans have suffered, reliving the dehumanizing horrors of that war, is devastating, too. “Fallujah” stands as a teaching tool to those who haven’t lived through this experience. On the threshold of the Trump-Pence regime, it’s also a cautionary tale.
The characters are US Marines, stationed in Fallujah, and Iraqis, told to flee their ruined city before it is too late. There are fateful, face-to-face East-meets-West encounters and rough “locker room talk” and action, but the focus is US Marine Corps Lance Corporal Philip Houston—bass-baritone LaMarcus Miller in a strong, vivid performance—and his traumatic days, after his service, in a stark Veterans Health Administration hospital room, relieved of belt and shoes. The wrenching heart of the opera is the pair of mothers-and-sons encounters, sometimes depicted simultaneously: Philip and Colleen (soprano Suzan Hanson), the anxious adoptive mother he is not yet ready to see, and Wissam (tenor Jonathan Locayo) and Shatha (soprano Ani Maldjian), the boy who would meet and talk to the American who has invaded his city and the mother who dresses him in her robe to help him escape with her, rather than stay and fight in what she does not believe is a “Holy War.” US Marine Christian Ellis’ story inspired Raffo, who is part Iraqi, to create the libretto. She disclosed, before the performance, that Ellis, billed here as story consultant, has survived five suicide attempts since returning from Iraq.
In director and designer Andreas Mitisek’s production, the audience is, eerily, sometimes surrounded by the same armed Marines that fought beside Philip and continue to fight in the ongoing war in his mind. Kristof Van Grysperre led the players in Stokes’ varied, well-integrated score, which ranges from Eastern mode to rock trio, representing Ellis’ iPod playlist, to a brash contemporary classical idiom. Dan Weingarten designed the lighting and Hana S. Kim, the evocative video. Lyric tenor Todd Strange, as Taylor, Philip’s closest comrade in the Corps, and dramatic baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis, as Kassim, Wissam and Stratha’s cynical neighbor, made major contributions. Baritones Gregorio Gonzalez and Jason Switzer and tenor Arnold Livingston Geis, as other US Marines, completed the ensemble.
“Fallujah” is a co-production of NYCO and Long Beach Opera, which presented the world premiere in California in March. Remaining performances, at this writing, take place on November 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and 20 at 4 p.m. Visit www.nycopera.com
for more information. NYCO’s next production is Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” from January 6 to 12, 2017, at the Rose Theater.