Opera coming to Tucson shares the stories of military soldiers

Here’s a first for the opera world: The United States Army has commissioned an opera.

This weekend, Arizona Opera will present “The Falling and the Rising,” a new work based on the true life stories of soldiers returning from battle that was conceived and commissioned by the Army Soldiers Chorus.

Arizona is getting in on the work’s infancy; the piece has only been performed a handful of times since its 2018 premiere at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, which provided funding for the project. Performances were planned for 2020 and 2021, but had to be postponed because of the pandemic.

“It’s so compelling and so inspirational,” said stage director Dennis Whitehead Darling. “When I saw this in Memphis, it was my husband and a couple of friends and we were just in tears. And how often does that happen in opera. …It’s a powerful piece.”

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So how did the Army end up in the opera biz?

It all started with aspiring opera singer Benjamin Hilgert, who joined the US Army Soldiers Chorus in 2010. The chorus, under the umbrella of the Army Field Band, travels around the country putting on concerts as a way to introduce Americans to their military.

“We bridge that military divide,” the 41-year-old father of three said in an interview from his home outside Baltimore, where the band is stationed. “There is less than 1% of Americans serving in the armed forces, so we kind of keep tabs for the American public on what’s happening in your military.”

Hilgert had been with the chorus about a year when he launched an opera scenes program to create more opportunities for his fellow chorus members.

After four years, a new base commander, Col. Jim Keene, decided to take the program in a different direction, one that would tell the Army story through an operational lens. He told Hilgert to brainstorm some ideas.

Hilgert’s idea: commission an opera that told a real story about soldiers, from real soldiers’ experiences.

Hilgert tapped librettist Jerre Dye and composer Zach Redler and the trio set to work interviewing soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland; The Old Guard at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia; and Fort Meade, where Hilgert was stationed in Maryland.

At the end of each day of interviews, the trio would huddle and recount the stories they had heard. Before long, they had an idea of ​​their story:

A female soldier, gravely injured when her Humvee hits a roadside bomb, slips into a coma and in her dreams encounters fellow soldiers telling her stories of their military experience.

“It was a really clever way, I think, for the librettist to take these true stories that were documented by veterans and then incorporate them into a dreamscape so he could tie them all together,” said director Darling.

Darling, one of only a handful of African-American opera directors in the country, brought a multimedia and tech sense to the staging, adding LED projections and lighting that allows the audience to experience the explosion and battleground scenes without actually seeing them.

Darling had a background in theater and musical theater before he fell into opera. After directing a production for Opera Memphis, the company launched the McCleave Fellowship in Directing to bring more music and stage directors of color into the art form. Darling was an inaugural fellow in 2017.

“I’m having a wonderful time working in opera and I would never have predicted that five years ago, 10 years ago,” he said.

Hilgert said his experience with “The Falling and the Rising” has inspired him. He’s already thinking about a second opera.

“It showed something in me that I didn’t know I had,” said the 6-foot-5 Hilgert, who started singing in high school when he wasn’t playing on the school basketball team. “And once I got a hold of it, I couldn’t let it go. It absolutely changed my life.”

At the end of “The Falling and the Rising,” a dozen Tucson veterans will join the cast on stage to perform the finale.

Catch it at 7:30 pm Saturday, Oct. 22, or 2 pm Sunday, Oct. 23 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.

Tickets are $40-$115 through tickets.azopera.org.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at [email protected]

On Twitter @Starburch

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