First Opera on Iraq War Takes a Bow in Long Beach

A. Mitisek / Courtesy of Long Beach Opera

Long Beach Opera presents tragedy based on Marine Sgt. Christian Ellis' struggles with PTSD.

Playwright Heather Raffo showed little interest when the City Opera Vancouver approached her five years ago with Fallujah, a story by Iraq veteran Sergeant Christian Ellis about a soldier who perishes trying to save a little boy. The American-raised, half-Iraqi playwright broke through in 2004 with her one-woman play, 9 Parts of Desire, about Iraqi women during the war, which left little doubt where she stood on the U.S. invasion. So an opera about a U.S. Marine saving the day in a cause she knew in her heart to be unjust was not an offer she was inclined to pursue.

Instead she wrote something else. “He tried to save a boy and the boy he tried to save is himself,” is how she describes Ellis. "When I looked him up online, he's had multiple suicide attempts and he's come back with really debilitating PTSD. I told them, I think that's the bigger story." It became the basis of the first opera on Iraq, composed by Tobin Stokes, enjoying its world premiere at Long Beach Opera from Mar. 12 through Mar. 20.

Over a hundred Marines and thousands of Iraqis were lost in Fallujah over two bloody campaigns in 2004. Ellis was a machine gunner who suffered a broken back when his platoon was ambushed. Among the few survivors, his struggle with PTSD is no less lethal than that horrific encounter.

Conceived over hours of conversations between a woman who mainly distrusted the U.S. military and a Marine Sergeant, the story centers on a soldier, Philip, and an Iraqi boy who meet in a moment of violence that fundamentally changes them. “I didn’t want to say this is opera, so we’ve got to shy away from saying, ‘Shit, his brains are in my mouth,” says Raffo about early concerns that the material was too graphic. “If we’re talking about someone having an experience where their son is shot in front of them and their body parts are all over them, I want to go there.”

For her, going there including finding a sound that was “raw and awful.” It wasn't meant to be a comment on the work of composer Tobin Stokes, a Canadian-born musician best known for his chamber opera, Pauline, a collaboration with novelist Margaret Atwood. “I liked the idea of the marines getting to Iraq and what they would have heard, the otherness. I let that kind of seep into the score,” says Stokes, who cites John Adams as an influence. “So I found these voices and these chords and that really worked to build the vocabulary of the piece in a unique way.”

While Fallujah originated in his home town of Vancouver, Stokes saw the piece differently after workshopping it in Tampa, Florida. For the first time he met many with personal stories about losing their sons, some of whom succumbed to PTSD. Raffo experienced some of the horror herself when relatives were forced to flee Mosul as Isis marched in.

“The emotional human cost and toll of being in a really violent dramatic situation, I think we got at the underbelly of that. I would say the story is about identity,” she explains. “A lot of Christian’s journey is about being adopted. He was adopted at 8 and didn’t know his birth parents.”

As a new mother, she found it an obvious point of engagement, though it made a strange contrast to the horrors of the war — like the time she fell asleep nursing her infant while listening to Ellis’ playlist of slash metal. “There’s a fierce protectiveness that translated into the opera about these mothers with kids in war zones. Whether it’s the Iraq mom with her sons, or whether it’s the American mom, it’s so beyond what you can comprehend.”