Pittsburgh Opera presents David T. Little’s powerful and provocative Soldier Songs

United StatesUnited States Little, Soldier Songs: Yazid Gray (baritone), Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra / Mark Trawka (conductor). Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters, Pittsburgh, 8.12.2020. Livestream viewed on 11.12.2020. (RP)

Yazid Gray in Soldier Songs © David Bachman

Director – Kaley Karis Smith
Sets – Mengyi Liu
Costumes – Jason Bray
Lighting – Todd Nonn
Projection – Joe Spinogatti

Even the most ingenious, bravest and best in the performing arts community haven’t been spared in the havoc created by the repeated surges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pittsburgh Opera, whom I include in that count, is no exception.

In October, the company presented live performances of its delightful production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Audience numbers were limited, temperatures taken at the door and everyone who could – including the singers – wore masks, but the show went on. Hopes ran high that the rest of the season would go as smoothly.

A couple of weeks later, the live performances of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs scheduled for December were cancelled. Instead, there would be a single livestreamed performance of the one-person opera on 11 December. Just a couple of days before the performance, the plug was pulled on it too, and a tape of the dress rehearsal was aired. In his brief introductory remarks, Christopher Hahn, the company’s general director, said that in good conscience he couldn’t let people gather under the circumstances.

David T. Little is best known for his orchestral and operatic works, most notably the opera Dog Days, which The New York Times deemed a standout in a 2014 survey of contemporary opera. A member of the composition faculty at New York’s Mannes School of Music, Little is also the artistic director of Newspeak, an eight-piece amplified ensemble that explores the boundaries between rock and classical music.

Soldier Songs was commissioned by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which premiered the work in 2006. Its workshop premiere was given by Beth Morrison Projects in New York in 2008; the world premiere of the complete opera took place in 2011 at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven. It took Little, who wrote the libretto as well as the music for Soldier Songs, nine years to complete the opera.

Constructed in three sections – Child, Warrior and Elder – the opera explores an American male’s changing perceptions of war and the military across six decades. Little interviewed US military veterans of five wars, and their actual words are heard and seen, serving to amplify the tropes in the story that Little crafted from their experiences.

The Solider is first seen as a boy playing with toy guns and action figures. As a teen, he progresses to video games that provide simulated, combat-like experiences in which he kills countless foes; the only break in the action is the time that he needs to reload his virtual weapon. At eighteen, he registers for the draft. During basic training, the young man counts each day until he is sent to battle. Once deployed, he counts the days again, but in reverse from 365, hoping he makes it to day one.

As a soldier, his youthful toys and games are replaced by modern military weapons and technology. He goes into battled juiced up by the music of the heavy metal band Metallica, shooting abstract enemies who appear as pixels on a screen. What were once games, however, become too real and horrific for him. Sheltering from an incoming attack, he realizes that these experiences will haunt him for the rest of his life.

In the final scenes, multiple voices are heard. Veterans reflect on their experiences in combat and discuss the challenges of reintegration into civilian life. One man remarks on the futility of endless wars. The Soldier is now an older man whose son is a Marine seeing action. When the bereavement team sent to notify him of his son’s death comes to his front door, he refuses to open it, instead dousing the vehicle in which the two Marines arrived with gasoline and setting it on fire. The scene is framed by distorted quotations from Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and ‘Chester’, an American Revolutionary War anthem.

Little’s style is eclectic and Soldier Songs combines elements of theater, opera and rock-infused-concert music. The score is full of driving, tension-creating passages for the piano and other percussion instruments: no surprise there as Little is a percussionist. There are lighter textures, some of which are quite beautiful and evocative. His vocal writing in a variety of styles is equally effective. Even during the heaviest, most intense musical passages, Mark Trawka drew transparency and clarity from the orchestra.

Director Kaley Karis Smith played it straight with the story. Her deftest touches, such as an empty row of boots that pay silent tribute to those who died in combat, were often the simplest. At the end of the opera, red poppies are placed on the boots. Bombed-out walls and arches separated the stage from the orchestra. The libretto, quotations from the veterans interviewed by Little and photos of smiling, shining soldiers and injured men were beamed on the walls. In live performance, the video imagery and lightening effect, combined with the sounds of fighting, would have immersed the audience in battle.

Baritone Yazid Gray was the Soldier, conceived by Little as an Everyman. Visually and vocally, Gray evolved from an oversized child in red tights and cape playing a super hero to a shuffling sexagenarian in a sweater vest, suit and tie. Most of the time, however, he wore a uniform.

Gray was a vocal chameleon, who effectively produced the clear, penetrating sounds of a boy at play, as well as the commanding voice of a warrior. His soft, high repetitions of the father’s lament, ‘Bring me back my son’, as he clutched a folded American flag in the familiar tricorne shape, were as heartbreaking as they were beautiful. It was a powerful performance, all the more remarkable in that Gray wore a mask.

In January, the Washington Post published a story with the startling fact that fully one-quarter of Americans have never been alive when the United States was not at war, while 18-year-olds born after the first US assault on Afghanistan are now old enough to enlist and fight there.

Perspective is in short supply at the moment, but Pittsburgh Opera’s powerful production of Soldier Songs is a valuable reminder that history did not end as some once predicted and, post-pandemic, it still has to be reckoned with.

Rick Perdian

To view Pittsburgh Opera’s Soldier Songs, click here.

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