Faced with the prospect of empty stages for a year or more, Opera Philadelphia pivoted skillfully to the digital space, launching a streaming platform last fall that feels like a continuation of its own forward-thinking mission. To date, the offerings have combined repertory staples like La traviata with newer works like Tyshawn Sorey’s Cycles of My Being, as well as a lively program curated by Lawrence Brownlee that’s part recital, part variety show. But with Soldier Songs, a shot-on-location presentation of David T. Little’s 2006 monodrama about the lingering after-effects of war, the company plants a new flag of possibility for the future, showing that a work created out of necessity can be every bit as satisfying as the standard fare.

Soldier Songs
© Dominic Mercier

Baritone Johnathan McCullough, who also serves as director and co-screenwriter with James Darrah, filmed the 60-minute song cycle at the Brandywine Conservancy in Chadds Fords, Pennsylvania. The elegant agricultural utopia transforms effortlessly into a downmarket trailer park, where a veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder swills beer, smokes too many cigarettes and confronts – or more often avoids – the atrocities he faced on the battlefield. 

The libretto, written by the composer, also considers war from a more abstract perspective, as something glamorized by movies and media, full of carnage that might entice a young recruit into enlisting only to unravel him. GI Joe dolls give way to console controls and, ultimately, a real gun, a tragically predictable cycle that cannot be broken. “If I get shot, I’ll just start over,” the transfixed soldier sings, his face illuminated by the spectral glow of a video game. “If I get shot, it doesn’t really hurt any.” Real life cuts a lot deeper, of course. (It’s worth remembering this piece first appeared amid the second Iraq War, which claimed the lives of more than 4,000 American soldiers.)

Johnathan McCullough in Soldier Songs
© Dominic Mercier

Little, McCullough and Darrah don’t set out to tell an uplifting story. Instead, they give voice to a segment of the population that often suffers in silence – a fact underscored by a collage of interviews with former servicemen and women heard at various intervals, in which they try to square the fictional ideal of war with the darker reality. Millie Hiibel’s costumes blend military fatigues with street clothes, smartly erasing the line further between soldier and civilian. An affecting moment comes when the soldier, suffering a sudden, overwhelming panic attack, implores an unseen director to call “cut” – things are getting too real. But life isn’t a movie, we are reminded, and neither is war.

The score jumps around from lush harmonies that recall Samuel Barber to pounding percussion that might have been lifted from a hard-rock concert. Corrado Rovaris handles the incongruity well; he isn’t afraid to use a jarring shift in style to make a dramatic point. (The soundtrack was recorded in advance, although McCullough sang live.) Blasts, sirens and other combat-like sound effects contribute just as much as the music itself; they serve as another portal inside the cluttered mind of the main character. When they interrupt a bar of music, sometimes unsettlingly, the viewer feels as though he is hearing what the soldier hears, experiencing an unexpected reminder of trauma that can creep up at any moment.

Johnathan McCullough in Soldier Songs
© Dominic Mercier

McCullough’s baritone, lyrical but firm, suits the score and its dramatic complexity. He adopts a scratchy falsetto when giving voice to the soldier as a boy, besotted by the heroism of his toy soldiers. He darkens his sound to a gruff growl while portraying the bloodthirsty fighter, content to kill them all and let God sort out the details. Parlando is employed wisely to communicate the inner anguish that remains long after the actual conflict resolves. In an affectingly quiet moment, he assumes the figure of a father whose son perishes in war, his heartbreak expressed through an almost whispered legato line.

Phil Bradshaw’s cinematography employs close-ups judiciously, pushing the camera in to underline a subtle moment that might otherwise skate by. McCullough’s large, expressive eyes hint at tension roiling beneath the surface. Perhaps most impressively, he never comes across like a stage performer awkwardly dropped into an unfamiliar medium. His performance is perfectly scaled to the small screen.

Soldier Songs shows what a company can achieve by thinking creatively and working within the limits of the pandemic. Both the work itself and this expression of it are full of big, important ideas that should remain front-and-center long after the opera world returns to business as usual.

This performance was reviewed from the Opera Philadelphia video stream

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