Through the powerful tenor of voices, this performance is one to hear about life after war.
By Evan Bleier
When life hands you lemons, they’ll tell you, you’re supposed to make lemonade.
Since life kept the lemons and instead gave Sgt. Christian Ellis a fractured back courtesy of an improvised explosive device he encountered while serving in Iraq in 2004, the Marine made something a bit different once he returned home — an 80-minute opera.
The contemporary piece, Fallujah, is inspired by what Ellis experienced during his tour of duty and his battle with PTSD after returning home. Fallujah portrays everything that Lance Cpl. Philip Houston and his loved ones must endure during a 72-hour period when he’s being held in a veterans’ hospital after his third suicide attempt.
With Ellis consulting and philanthropist Charlie Annenberg Weingarten supporting the project, composer Tobin Stokes and Heather Raffo, an Iraqi-American librettist, crafted the haunting work around the relationship Houston has with his adopted mother and the men, as well as with the memories the suicidal veteran has of the men he served with.
Told in the past and present using a multi-faceted set as well as a screen that displays pictures, videos and other pieces of imagery that helps illustrate Houston’s battle with his wounds, his memories and himself, Fallujah is raw and unblinking, much like the experiences that Ellis — who attempted suicide four times — shared with his collaborators.
“Christian paints a vivid picture of the harrowing realities he and his comrades faced in Iraq,” Weingarten said. “He tells of his experiences with emotional honesty, and with deep compassion and understanding for the opposing side.”
Originally commissioned by City Opera Vancouver, Fallujah had its world premiere at Long Beach (California) Opera in 2016 before coming to The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City for a limited engagement late last fall that featured a cast of nine backed by an 11-piece chamber orchestra.
During the shows, it was Ellis’ hope audiences at the 200-seat theater would “bear witness to life as experienced by Philip Houston” and see the “guilt, shame, regret, rage, isolation and fear” that kept the troubled vet tied to Iraq long after his service was complete.
“This opera strives to create healthy discussions with the goal to assist everyone to not just understand, but to listen to those hurting and in their own way, asking for help,” Ellis said. “Listening passionately and with sincerity can truly be the difference between life and death for veterans with PTSD.”