The tag “CNN opera” was always a misleading way to refer to operas grappling with current events, but it's downright insulting when it comes to a work like Fallujah, the chamber opera by the Canadian composer Tobin Stokes and the Iraqi-American librettist Heather Raffo that just received its East Coast première in a co-production by New York City Opera and Long Beach Opera.

<i>Fallujah</i> © Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera
Fallujah
© Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera

To be sure, CNN reported the events of the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004, a notoriously violent campaign that was waged a year after the US invaded Iraq. But the headlines couldn't begin to approach the complex emotional terrain that Fallujah attempts to explore in drawing on the real-life experiences of US Marine Gunnery Sergeant Christian Ellis, whose survivor guilt and severe post-traumatic stress disorder led to multiple suicide attempts after his return from the war.

“Because music is able to express something that conversation cannot,” writes Raffo in response to her own question “Why an opera?” on a topic as raw as the recent Iraq War. Opera “demands in size and in emotion something from the human voice that goes beyond what can be comfortably spoken.”

As it happens, Ellis had wanted to become an opera singer, and it was during a retreat for veterans which he attended that the idea was hatched of transforming his traumatic memories into the operatic medium, with funding by the Annenberg Foundation based in Los Angeles. Ellis participated as a consultant, his interviews with Stokes and Raffo generating the outlines of the story and characters. Fallujah was workshopped for several years before  Long Beach Opera gave the world première last March in a site-specific setting in Southern California. New York City Opera's co-production took place right in the heart of the Broadway theatre district at the Duke on 42nd Street (a 200-seat black box space), using the same cast and design team from Long Beach Opera.

<i>Fallujah</i> © Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera
Fallujah
© Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera

The intimacy of the space reinforced the emotionally immersive effect of the staging and production design by Andreas Mitisek, who also serves as LBO's bold artistic and general director. Hana S Kim's videos, together with art design by Kohn Harguindeguy and Michael Hebert, projected imagery of the Iraqi city and a claustrophobic hospital corridor, while Dan Weingarten's lighting veered from realism to hallucinatory, phosphorescent flashes of battles replayed in the memory of protagonist Philip Houston, a USMC Lance Corporal under watch in a veterans' hospital after his third suicide attempt.

Lasting about 80 minutes without intermission, Fallujah takes us inside Philip's mind during this period of isolation, during which he is haunted by the traumatic violence he has both witnessed and perpetrated. Raffo's gritty libretto is powerful and to the point and largely guides the musical direction followed by Tobin Stokes, who has a background as a rock drummer, jazz pianist, street performer and film composer. The first part of the opera relies heavily on declamation, eventually yielding to a more lyrical content. This proves to be a very effective dramaturgical strategy, for it replicates the path Philip himself must travel: the path from being paralysed by a state of emotional numbness to finding how to feel again.

Stokes seeds his score with the artifacts of American soldiers at war: fragments of hard-driving metal rock from their iPods and vaguely Middle Eastern sonorities (as they would be heard by Western ears). Using a chamber ensemble of just 11 players (including oud and electric guitar), he extracts an admirably varied range of moods. The orchestra played from backstage, excellently led by conductor Kristof Van Grysperre.

Stokes also writes with special eloquence for the two female voices, Philip's mother Colleen (Suzan Hanson) and Shatha (Ani Maldjian ), the Iraqi mother he slaughters, crafting the opera's most moving scene as an ensemble for the two pairs of mothers and sons. 

<i>Fallujah</i> © Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera
Fallujah
© Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera

Bass-baritone LaMarcus Miller gave Philip an emotionally rich and resonant portrayal, exposing his character's psychic wounds with palpable empathy. Tenor Jonathan Lacayo conveyed a quavering vulnerability that was deeply moving in the linchpin role of Wissam, the Iraqi boy whose life is torn apart by the murder of his mother Shatha. As the two mothers, both Maldjian and Hanson gave the story a veneer of timeless tragedy.

As Philip's soldier comrades, Todd Strange, Gregorio González, Jason Switzer and Arnold Livingston Geis gave exemplary ensemble performances, along with Zeffin Quinn Hollis as an Iraqi man. Strange also stood out in his brief but potent depiction of Philip's best friend Taylor, at first crudely unlikeable and then humanised as he speaks of his baby daughter, just before his sudden death in the streets of Fallujah.

The performance was framed by discussions with two Marine veterans of Iraq, both of whom shared their struggles with post-traumatic stress and the work of recovery, for them and their families. Their interchange with the audience was as moving as Fallujah, underscoring the opera's therapeutic dimension – and the importance of listening in all contexts.