In her autobiography, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya told of falling in love with a recording of the opera “Eugene Onegin,” only to be bitterly disappointed the first time she saw it onstage. Many opera lovers, I think, can relate: Works that seemed plausible on repeated hearings turn out to be almost impossible to realize convincingly (“La forza del destino,” I’m looking at you). I had a similar sensation Saturday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center when I saw David T. Little’s “Soldier Songs.”
Let’s put aside questions of whether “Soldier Songs” is an “opera.” Genre categorizations are not that useful. It’s a monodrama, written for an opera singer (David Adam Moore has made the part his own) and accompanied by Newspeak, Little’s indie-classical ensemble. It’s set up as a series of individual numbers, tracing the life or lives of a soldier from a child’s “killing all the bad guys” war games to the ponderings of an old man comparing war with a game of chess: “When will the king fight his own fight?”
Little based the libretto — which he wrote — on interviews with friends and family members who had been in wars from World War II through Iraq. The result, he says, is not a particularly political piece but a collection of observations about what it feels like to be in a war. This is disingenuous, because the “war is hell” motive comes through loud and clear, particularly because Little’s music is so strong, with a pounding undercurrent of percussion bearing along individual voices — a single flute line, a piano flourish, a clarinet riff — in a tsunami-like tide. This is angry music. People are dying out there.
Listening to the recording (on Innova Records), I got the intensity of the emotion and the sophistication of the music. Attending a performance, I expected a dramatic component commensurate with those elements. But here, it turns out, the piece falters, because its dramatic content is nowhere near as sophisticated as its musical expression.
This was an important production for the Atlas, almost canceled for lack of funds, and it brought some of the big names of the contemporary music scene into town (including violinist/conductor Todd Reynolds, who led Newspeak with some of the percussive quality of the drums, and filmmaker Bill Morrison). “Soldier Songs” is produced by Beth Morrison Projects, an organization that’s becoming the big player in the contemporary opera world; the company effectively launched in 2006 with the first production of “Soldier Songs,” and Morrison created this new production, commissioning the other Morrison’s film when the costs became too high.
The film, shown on a scrim over the stage, has some of the emotional specificity that the libretto lacks: 1950s-era children playing war games, images from the draft lottery and other snippets adding up to an evocative collage of forgotten history. Behind these images, Moore, on a platform, struts and cowers and shouts, emerging briefly from this cover for the number “Two Marines,” which deals with the near-iconic moment when members of the armed forces come to a home to let parents know their child has died.
The combination of Moore’s strong operatic voice; the classical-pop blend of Newspeak; the driving, often loud rhythms and layerings of the music (conducted briskly Saturday by Reynolds); and the visual assault of Morrison’s images add up to a collage of their own. But as a staged work, it lacks a focus. The piece is framed by recorded snippets of interviews from which Little fashioned the libretto, and they confer the kind of character and individuality you’d hope for in a narrative that seems predicated on the oft-explored but oft-effective trope of the individual against the faceless machine of war. But the songs lack individuality: The texts are so general that they become the stuff of cliche, which is exposed when you put them on a stage and try to offer them as drama. On Saturday, neither the music nor the strong performances could lift them above the level of blunted emotional barrage.
Musically, “Soldier Songs” is an important piece, and it’s gotten a number of performances; this production will continue on to the Holland Festival in June. It is no more a write-off than “Eugene Onegin,” which Vishnevskaya later learned to love in other productions. The fact is, though, that this production, glad as I was for a chance to see it in Washington, did not sell me on its merits as a stage work. Time will tell whether other productions may win me over.