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Opera about Iraq War to Be Performed at USF

Mar 20, 2015

A concert presentation of the Iraq War opera "Fallujah" is at the University of South Florida Friday night.
Credit HeatherRaffo.com

At some point in the future, a first of its kind play about the Iraq War might make its debut on Broadway - and what happens on stage at the University of South Florida Friday night may play an important part in its development.

The opera, "Fallujah," is a work in progress. Playwright Heather Raffo has been developing the biographical story of U.S. Marine Christian Ellis for about five years, starting shortly after Ellis met Charles Annenberg of the Annenberg Foundation.

"And as they befriended each other and got to talking, Christian said that he had dreamed of being an opera singer and Charlie Annenberg thought, 'Let's give Christian music lessons,' and as their friendship continued, he said, 'Why don't we make an opera of your life?'" Raffo said.

So Raffo, the writer and star of the critically acclaimed play "9 Parts of Desire," was hired to serve as librettist, and Canadian composer Tobin Stokes would set the story to music.

Ellis, who didn't travel to Tampa for this presentation, has said that he was hesitant at first to work with the half-Iraqi Raffo.

U.S. Marine Christian Ellis & playwright Heather Raffo, co-creators of the opera "Fallujah."
Credit HeatherRaffo.com

She was able to conduct extensive interviews with Ellis, who was still recovering from PTSD and a series of suicide attempts. She spoke to him and other Marines to get an idea of what it was like to fight in Fallujah in 2003-2004, some of the most violent battles of the Iraq War. Raffo interviewed Iraqis about their experiences as well.

"My dad's Iraqi, my mom's American," Raffo said. "So it was of interest to me to make sure that the Iraqi characters were as fully fleshed as any of the characters in the play."

The opera was presented in workshop form at City Opera Vancouver while a staged reading last year at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts drew both veterans and Iraqis. It was there that Raffo saw the true power of the story.

"I was watching the audience - they were both crying at the same point," she said. "So they were mourning and grieving about the same death. One wasn't grieving the Iraqi death and the other the military death, they were grieving the same thing in the opera, and I thought that was really interesting."

"Fallujah's" development drew the attention of Andrea Assef, the artistic director of Art2Action. The performing arts group has been working with USF and other Bay area groups to present THIS Bridge, a series featuring Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim artists; as well as a second series of art projects for veterans. She viewed "Fallujah" as a piece that can reach both audiences.

"There are things that veterans know about war, there are things that refugees know about war that most of us in the American public don't really know and maybe are afraid to even think about or really look at," Assaf said. "And if we did, maybe we'd make different decisions. Maybe work like this can have some impact on the decisions we make in the future as a nation."

Professional singers, including Sryiran opera singer Lubana Al Quntar, will perform "Fallujah" at USF tonight.

USF Senior Kaleb Coicou performs the aria "Numb" from the opera "Fallujah."
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

In the meantime, USF School of Music Opera Workshop students have also been exploring the work. Senior Kaleb Coicou is the understudy for the lead character, Marine Sergeant Phillip Houston.

At a recent walkthrough, Coicou performed an aria entitled "Numb." (see the video above)

"I feel numb, I feel burdened, I feel heartache, I feel all these things," Coicou said after his performance. "Not just that, but also the redemption and also the healing and also the goodness that also comes with that and also just going through that pain and processing it."

Coicou's performance was so powerful, it moved Raffo, in tears, to climb onstage and hug him tightly after he finished.

"What he offered that was so beautiful is that the character is numb, but doesn't want to stay numb," Raffo said. "So some people might pick it up and play the numbness rather than play the desire for life outside of the numbness and that's what I felt was so moving."

"It's just been amazing going through this process, to just bring about this awareness of things that go on in the military, what happened in Fallujah," Coicou added. "It's just been so great because a lot of places don't get these same chances and these same opportunities a lot of universities don't."

Raffo said that, like the message Coicou conveyed in his performance, Christian Ellis continues improving. In interviews, Ellis now says he's glad he's worked with her.

And Raffo says that she'll take the lessons she learns at USF and work with Ellis and Tobin Stokes in refining "Fallujah" with a goal of creating a full opera - complete with set, lighting and costumes - that can be premiered somewhere.

"And from all that, it's the conversation," Raffo said. "It's the conversation that's already begun in the workshops, but I just know that there's a trajectory to this kind of conversation that really puts civilians and military people in the same room, talking about things they wouldn't ordinarily talk about."

A concert performance of "Fallujah" takes place tonight at 7:30 at the USF School of Music Concert Hall and will be followed by a discussion with Raffo and some of the performers. For ticket information, click here.