Opera film ‘Soldier Songs’ about war trauma heads to Grammys | A&E
NEW YORK (AP) — A window display at his old high school gave David T. Little the inspiration for his first opera — a work that, 18 years later, has taken an unusual path to a nomination for this year’s Grammy Awards .
“Soldier Songs,” an hour-long piece for baritone and orchestral septet, depicts with unrelenting intensity the horrors of war and PTSD faced by many returning veterans.
It invites the singer to play a variety of roles in quick succession, including a boy fantasizing about going into battle (“I want to be a real American hero”); a soldier stunned by the constant danger and bloodshed around him (“This movie is out of control… Someone’s screaming cut!”); and a grieving father notifies that his son has been killed (“Two Marines came to my house…”).
Little’s amped-up, heart-pounding score mixes rock with classic, minimalist forms and opens and closes with repeated percussive explosions that sound like distant explosions.
The composer recalled how the idea for the piece took shape when he visited his old school. It was 2004 – three years after 9/11 – and he noticed a dramatic change in the exhibit space outside the auditorium.
“Where normally there would be pictures of the prom, instead there were pictures of graduates who were currently deployed, friends in uniform with machine guns,” Little said. “It was really shocking to me. I didn’t understand. I had a hard time understanding this choice. The military felt very far from me personally.”
He decided to interview and record former classmates who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as relatives who had fought in Vietnam or in World War II. Their memories formed the basis of its libretto, and their real voices are woven into the opera’s score.
“The first thing I heard was, ‘You know, I never talked about it,'” Little said. “So the play became the difficulty of talking about the experience.”
Since its premiere in 2006, “Soldier Songs” has been performed in a variety of stagings with considerable success. But when the pandemic hit and live performances became impossible, Opera Philadelphia decided to make a movie out of it for their streaming channel.
“It’s like a lot of projects that have emerged from the COVID crisis,” said Marc Scorca, President and CEO of Opera America, “as people figured out how they could continue to be creative and promote the art form for those who love it but couldn’t get to the movies.”
The company brought in Johnathan McCullough, a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, to perform and conduct. The film was shot over eight days on the grounds of the nearby Brandywine Conservancy, site of a famous Revolutionary War battle. The only props were a dilapidated trailer and its shabby contents, some spilling onto the grass outside.
McCullough had become interested in the topic of veterans’ PTSD after hearing stories from his fiancée, a psychiatry resident, about cases she had encountered while working at the VA. Before COVID-19 hit, he planned to produce and star in a touring version of “Soldier Songs.”
“I had been thinking about it for a year and a half and had it all written in the sheet music,” McCullough said. “At this rate, on this note, I do this, and so on.”
James Darrah, an experienced director who produced the film, helped McCullough fulfill his dual role. “He was my pair of eyes on the monitor while I was on camera,” McCullough said.
The score, conducted by Corrado Rovaris, the company’s musical director, was pre-recorded on a soundstage, allowing McCullough to sing live during filming and avoid the contrivedness of lip-syncing.
Critics praised the result, and some found the film version even more powerful than the original. “McCullough’s striking adaptation”, wrote Steve Smith in The New Yorker, “brilliantly amplifies and expands the impact of Little’s words and music”.
Opera as a film – as opposed to a video of a stage production – is somewhat rare, and “Soldier Songs” is unique in this respect among the five nominees for this year’s Grammy Awards for Best Recording of opera. Two of the others are live HD transmissions from the Metropolitan Opera: “Akhnaton” by Philip Glass and “Dialogues des Carmélites” by François Poulenc. The other two are audio recordings: “Bluebeard’s Castle” by Bela Bartók with Susanna Mälkki leading the soloists and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; and “The Cunning Little Vixen” by Leos Janacek with Simon Rattle leading the soloists and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Whatever happens when the Recording Academy announces the winner, just being nominated has “given a boost” to the Philadelphia Opera, said David Levy, vice president of artistic operations.
“We had never had a connection with the Grammys before,” Levy added. “That’s wonderful!”