Art Works Blog

Singing Through the Wounds of War

Rehearsal for Fallujah. From l-r: Willy Miles-Grenzberg as "Lalo," Nickolas Meyer as "Rocks," Christopher Mayell as "Taylor," and Ken Lavigne as "Philip." Photo by Chad Galloway / Opus 59 Films / City Opera Vancouver

When U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant (Ret) Christian Ellis returned from the Iraq War, his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was so severe that he attempted suicide four different times. But it was at his darkest moment that he was prompted to return to one of his earliest loves: opera. With the support of philanthropist Charles Annenberg Weingarten, Ellis began to work with composer Tobin Stokes and librettist Heather Raffo, an Iraqi-American who has explored Iraqi culture in theatrical projects such as Nine Parts of Desire. Together, the team created Fallujah, the first opera based on the Iraq War. Inspired by Ellis's life, the opera was first staged at the City Opera Vancouver, and is being shown in weekly installments on, a division of the Annenberg Foundation. Art Works spoke with both Ellis and Raffo about the opera and the process that went into its making.

NEA: Christian, could you tell me about your initial meeting with Charles Annenberg Weingarten and how the idea for the opera came about?

CHRISTIAN ELLIS: The opera came about for the most part as a joke on my part. I met Charles Annenberg at a retreat for wounded warriors that focused on healing though nature. This particular journey was for fly-fishing. He was doing a documentary on veterans, and toward the end of this retreat, he asked me what do I want do in life? What would be my dream? Jokingly, I said I would love to sing and go back into opera. That's when he was like, "I have always had this dream of doing something about the Iraq War." And he gave me a challenge to come up with a story that I thought people would want to hear. It took me a little bit to write a story, and that's how it all started.

NEA: Christian, I know you have a background in music. Was your background specifically in opera?

ELLIS: No, not specifically just opera. I classically trained in opera; I'm a tenor. But my musical journey began when I was eight or nine. That's when my mom said I really started singing. Around the fourth grade, I picked up the trumpet; before then, my mom was teaching me piano. My passions became the trumpet and singing. I've done competitions, I've done all kinds of camps for men’s choir, honors choir, co-ed, international competitions, national competitions for singing, etc. all the way through college.

NEA: When you went to this retreat can you tell me where you were mentally, and were you still pursuing music?

ELLIS: Honestly, that retreat was my last attempt to find help. I had made plans to come back and end my life because I was in such a dark place. I didn't like where I was at, I didn't like what was going on. Music-wise, I had stopped singing when I was 19, and I was about 27 when Charlie Annenberg and I became acquainted. So I hadn’t sung in almost ten years. In no way, shape, or form was I involved in music---nothing. And then this out of the blue popped up. I was in the darkest place mentally, emotionally, spiritually that one could be in.

NEA: Christian and Heather, I read that both of you entered your first meeting together with a fair set of preconceived notions. Can you talk about that, and how you worked through those issues?

ELLIS: I was introduced to Heather via [artistic director] Charles Barber at City Opera Vancouver with the explanation that we have this amazing writer that they wanted me to work with who was half-American and half-Iraqi. What caught my attention was the half-Iraqi part. I did research on her; from what I read, she was a perfect fit. She had intelligent genius to create what we were looking for based on her work Nine Parts of Desire. But when they said I was going to meet her, I was extremely hesitant, because I know how I’ve always perceived Iraqis. I’ve always been trained---and my experience, a lot of it was bad---to expect them to be the enemy, but don’t treat them like that. Over time I grew to hate---I mean, truly hate---a lot of Iraqis because no matter what we did, as I saw it, they were ungrateful and they were all trying to kill us. It didn’t matter if you were a man, woman, or child. So I was extremely nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from her, and all I was focused on was that Iraqi part of her heritage. And the moment that I walked into her home, off the elevator, that was erased. It was an instant connection; I can’t even explain it. I saw her beautiful children, and she had this glowing smile on her face, her home was extremely welcoming, and right then, I knew that everything was going to be better.

HEATHER RAFFO: I will say that my acting training served me well [before that first meeting]. Actors are trained to go where the fear is. And I knew that I was afraid, and I thought well, that’s where the beauty is. I clearly have to do this. If I’m afraid of it, I have to do it. What I was afraid of was that I didn’t have the right to tell Christian’s story. I didn’t serve in the military, and how could I know these things?... Will I be able to understand it, something that is so different from me? And deeper than that, will I be able to let go of my own stereotypes, or fears, or hardness of heart about people that might have chosen to serve in the Iraq War? I think that what I knew to be to true was that if we could come together, that’s exactly where the story would be. That’s the whole reason to tell a story. Christan and I could be vulnerable and honest and expose ourselves to each other, and that’s what an audience is going to do. They’re going to get two sides of the story; they’re going to get 20 sides of the story. There are nine characters in the play, and they’ve all got in them multiple, conflicting sides of their own story. So the way Christian and I related to each other became the way these characters related to each other.

Christian Ellis (l) and Charles Annenberg Weingarten. Photo by Chad Galloway / Opus 59 Films / City Opera Vancouver

NEA: You touched on this, but you questioned whether you had the right to tell Christian’s story. Even though this is a work of fiction, you’re basing the story on someone else’s experiences---someone that you know. How did that affect the writing process for you? Did this create extra pressure?

RAFFO: It made me want to get it right, but I think I’d always want to get it right. The extra layer of pressure really honestly is that in meeting Christian, I felt that the story of who he was was different than the story he wanted to tell. And that meant that I had to propose to Christian, this is what I’ve heard from you; this is what I’ve learned from meeting you; this is what I think your story is and how I think that will move people watching it. Can we marry the story you want to tell with the story that I think you have lived? That was a vulnerable proposition, and a daring one. I had to say, “Hey, I think what you have lived in coming back alive is possibly harder than having died in Iraq.” And I had to say can we make this story really about PTSD? Because I think that’s what Charlie Annenberg wants, and what City Opera Vancouver wants, and what ultimately the conversation they want to create with veterans is about. So there are elements of wanting to get that right for all the parties involved, and knowing that it was my charge to do so, my charge to hear from everybody about what they wanted and needed this story to be, and find a way to make that work.

NEA: Christian, I imagine that seeing your story performed onstage also puts you in a very vulnerable position. But at the same time, you’re being given the chance to re-write your own story, literally and figuratively. Can you talk about what it’s been like to expose yourself like this, but also to take charge? Has there been an element of healing in all this?

ELLIS: It’s been an incredible healing process for me. It’s not easy to be vulnerable, especially as a U.S. Marine. There’s a lot on this stage that people will hear. Whether or not they’ll connect the dots, a lot of the information that they find out is about me. So having that onstage, having people know my fears, knowing what I’ve done, knowing what I’m scared of or what affects me, it’s extremely nerve-wracking. At times, it’s very scary. No one wants to be vulnerable to the world, and have everybody know your darkest secrets. So one of my biggest fears was how Heather was going to take what I wanted to tell, and present it in a way where it doesn’t feel like, “Here’s me in all my glory.” That’s how I perceived it. But she did it in an amazing way to where you don’t know it’s really me. Most people can relate to these characters. So it really diffused my fears.

In regard to re-writing my history, I don’t think anything was re-written. What I believe Heather did is she took a lot of my life, and a lot of her life, and married them together to tell a new story…. that’s never been told before in such a neutral, understanding way. It really helps heal a lot of my own mental injuries. Watching these actors perform a lot of things that had come out of my mouth, or mouths of people I knew, or situations that I had lived through, has really helped me realize that I need to accept them. And having Charlie Annenberg support this has just been a dream come true. So being vulnerable---we tackled that, we conquered it. Rewriting a new life---I believe we created a new life, a new story, that merged mine and Heather’s.

NEA: Heather, I know that you’ve written about the Iraqi experience before. How was this project different or similar to your prior work?

RAFFO: What’s similar about it is the depth of interviews into art process. With Nine Parts, I found real women and talked to them and lived with them and spent months with them in order to then make a composite of life stories. Again, not docu-drama---everybody’s name is changed, no text is verbatim---but it’s taking the truths of real life people, and making it into poetry. The process for this was similar.

What’s different is that Christian is involved in the process. So whereas with the Iraqi women, it was allowing the stories to work through me and then they may come to the play or not, Christian is involved in the process, and so therefore it is more exposing for him. Everyone knows this is inspired by his life story. In some ways, he can’t hide no matter how much we fictionalize. There’s this assumption that it’s his life as he’s lived it. But what’s different yet again, and profoundly beautiful for both of us, is that it’s all set to music…. Opera is a massive medium, and these stories are reaching people not only in song, but in really heightened music. So the poetic is really taking it to a different level.

NEA: Is this why opera was chosen as the format for this story, or were there other reasons for choosing this art form?

ELLIS: I’ve always had this deep appreciation and love for opera. When you go into an opera, there’s this massive sense of elegance, massive sense of mastery of the art. Whereas if you go into a Broadway musical, the sense of wonder is drastically different in my opinion. Opera has a way of transforming a story and really connecting the audience to it. Most people like to be entertained. Granted, we want to entertain, but also opera tends to have a more powerful purpose behind it. A good example was The Magic Flute. It’s a funny tale but there’s an important message behind it. With this opera, when we were thinking about music, I couldn’t think of anything other than wanting to have opera be the medium to tell the incredible story that Heather came up with.

A rehearsal at the Carnegie Centre, Vancouver. Photo by Chad Galloway / Opus 59 Films / City Opera Vancouver

NEA: Christian, what was the reaction if or when you told Marines that you served with about the opera?

ELLIS: I’ve actually had several of my buddies disengage our friendship out of fear. In their mind, they thought I was going to be telling things that aren’t publicly known about what we’ve done. I believe that they thought I was going to be this left-wing person that’s going to be preaching that the war is wrong, and this proves why it’s wrong. I think a lot of their fears were misguided and misplaced, and not accurate in what this portrayal was or intended to do. With that said, the people that have seen this, or have seen clippings, or have actually participated in the final workshop, they have thoroughly enjoyed it, and loved it in every single way. Heather and I were fortunate enough to actually join a conversation of active duty soldiers that when they were talking, they told us what they enjoyed. They related to this, and they publicly announced to people when we did a Q&A at the end that they loved it, and it essentially went above and beyond what they were expecting. Those who haven’t seen it who are active duty or veterans I think will find they can completely relate to it, completely understand, and hopefully learn from it because of the message that is inside it.

NEA: What do you hope people with no military experience will take away from the show?

ELLIS: We’ve had that experience too. When we did a Q&A at the end of the final production, we had people that had never seen opera. We also had people that hated opera. [People who] had no joy in going to see an opera told us---this is more than just one; it was several people---they loved this so much, and if operas were like this particular production, they would see them on a consistent basis. The music was hip, the message was amazing, and the story was powerful. So from my experience, because we do relate a lot of characters who are not in the military inside the story that people can identify with, I’m very confident that people will really take this opera to heart, thoroughly enjoy it in all aspects---emotionally, mentally, entertainment-wise.

RAFFO: We really feel that the opera is meant to begin a conversation. I would be hard-pressed to say people should just come and see it and then not talk about it. We want people to talk about it amongst themselves, talk about it with the people sitting next to them in the theater. I think that it’s definitely the kind of opera where you would want opera-goers, and military, and Arab Americans, and average civilians who have never been to an opera all in the room together discussing what they felt about the material….  I think the big takeaway from this opera is that a conversation needs to be had, and people need to just listen in order to hear what that conversation could possibly be.

NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RAFFO: I think [composer] Tobin Stokes is awesome. As much as Christian and I have set off each other’s stories, Tobin has said our stories and made his own musical story from that, and we’re deeply indebted to his power and talent.

ELLIS: I agree. The biggest challenge we had in creating this opera, even with the name Annenberg behind it, was to find a composer. When I [was] asked how I wanted this music to sound, I told them, “I want a fresh sound. I want a new genre of opera that fuses Middle Eastern and Western cultures together, but in a way that young and old can enjoy.” And Tobin did such an ingenious, beautiful composition of music that you hear elements of old school, traditional opera, and within the same page of music, you’re going to hear elements of thrash metal. It’s done in a way that just kind of shocks you, like, “Wow, I never realized opera can sound like this.” And that’s why we touch so many people. We have a great story, but Tobin took this story and really magnified it with incredible sound.

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