Fort Worth — We are in an era of plenty when it comes to the commissioning new operas. Due to the expense, opera companies are teaming up to greatly expand the repertoire and new operas seem to appear on every season of opera companies both large and small. But it was a surprise to learn of a new opera that was commissioned by the United States Army — the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldier's Chorus to be specific. The opera is The Falling and the Rising, with music by Zach Redler on a libretto by Jerre Dye. It is based on the true stories of injured soldiers and their heroic struggles to persevere in the face of adversity.
The Falling and the Rising was co-commissioned by a collection of opera companies in addition to the army: Seattle Opera, San Diego Opera, Arizona Opera and Opera Memphis. But there are also some non-opera companies in on the commission including Fort Worth's Texas Christian University and the Seagle Music Colony, which is run by Darren K. Woods, formerly General Director of Fort Worth Opera.
The Seagle Music Colony has a local connection. It is summer vocal training program located in the Adirondack region of upstate New York. It was founded in 1915. In 1996, the former director of the Fort Worth Opera, Darren K. Woods was appointed General Director but in 2008 it was decided that the director needed to be on campus year-round and Woods transitioned to part-time Artistic Director. When Woods time in Fort Worth ended in 2017, he returned to Seagle and is now the full-time director.
In May 2015, the Fort Worth Opera presented music by Redler, with librettist Mark Campbell in an opera entitled Song for Susan Smith as part of the Frontiers Festival. My review of the entire concert is here. Redler’s opera is near the end of the review.
The performances of Falling/Rising in Fort Worth, at Ed Landreth Auditorium, were double cast with one cast being members of the Army Field Band and the others being from this year’s crop of fine singers in the FWO/TCU Hattie Mae Lesley Apprentice Program. I attended the performance sung by the apprentices on Saturday afternoon.
David Gately directed the show. Staff Sergeant Ben Hilgert and Darren K. Woods served as executive producers. The production is bare, designed by Richard Kagey and Jim Koehnle, with just a few pieces of furniture and scenery projected behind the action. The media producer is SFC Jared Morgan with lighting by Lisa Miller. The costumes are accurate Army uniforms. Tyson Deaton did a fine job conducting the chamber orchestra.
The plot revolves around the Solider, sung by Bronwyn White, who is put in a coma so that her badly injured brain could heal itself faster. Either she is dreaming or her spirit has left her body as she visits others that appear, each with their own injuries to overcome.
The opera opens with the Solider dictating a long letter on her laptop addressed to her almost 13-year-old daughter. In this aria, we meet her and come to understand how she is torn between her duty to country and her duty to her daughter, who is left behind.
White has a beautiful lyric soprano voice and was completely believable as she moved through her conflicts trying to explain things to her daughter. It was staged being dictated as a video file, which was projected behind her. Thus, we could see her dictating and also see what her daughter would get. We next see her severely injured on a hospital gurney and being put into the coma.
Next we meet Toledo, sung by Bridget Cappel. Her nickname comes from her home town. While nothing is said about her sexuality, there are clues about it. The youngest and only daughter in a family with older brothers, she tells us of her efforts to match her brothers in everything including being as tough and participating in male-dominated sports. She is seeing a counselor and trying to work through survivor’s guilt — her fellow soldiers were all killed in an attack — as well as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Cappel has a real mezzo-soprano voice that is very flexible. She used it to great advantage in her narrative.
Josh Friend sang the role of The Jumper. He was the instructor of the Solider when it came to parachute jumping. It was obvious that his job was to calm her fears, which he did for more than jumping and made a strong impression on her in her training. But to hear him describe the experience, even those with a fear of heights might give it a try.
We next meet The Colonel, sung by Sam Parkinson, who shows us the other side, that of those left behind. He is celebrating his wedding anniversary but he is alone. His grief of the loss of his wife, which is not explained, was almost too painful to watch.
The Homecoming Solider, sung by Dante Mireles, is in a wheel chair and telling his story to his neighbors in a small country church. He is recently returned, severely injured and at a crossroads, conflicted on his future path.
The opera ended with the Solider walking stiffly with a cane, so we know she survived her brain injury. She is joined by all of the other cast members in singing an inspiring ensemble. The words are ones of the solidarity of soldiers. “This is my vow. I will die for you. We fall and rise as one. Just don’t forget that we are here.” (This quote may not be exact; I was writing in the dark.)
The music is tonal and romantic almost to a fault. It is uniformly beautiful throughout. As such, truly gorgeous moments don’t stand out as much as they should. Still, it is refreshing to hear modern operas written in neo-romantic tonal styles. A little more variety in Redler’s music might have made for a stronger opera, but it was very effective in describing the different characters and rising to an excellent climax for the final ensemble.