Necessary Art

Opera might not be the first medium you think of for a memoir about a soldier’s struggle with mental illness. Yet I don’t see how any other art form could have delivered the impact of Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann’s adaptation of Brian Castner’s book, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows.

The Long Walk premiered July 2015 at Opera Saratoga and will run again next month at Pittsburgh Opera. I got to see it in Salt Lake City last March. The story revolves around real-life American soldier Brian Castner and his wife Jessie as they struggle with the aftermath of his many tours of duty disarming explosives in Iraq.

From a first-person memoir, Beck and Fleischmann have fleshed out a drum-tight narrative that moves between psychological realities. Brian suffers from memory loss and flashbacks from the war that tear into his peaceful suburban home life. Jessie and their three sons face the challenges of building a life in the shadow of trauma. There is a lot of story. Its impact comes in waves, skillfully building to different points in a well crafted narrative. A piece of brilliant theater, there is not one wasted moment.

This is a terribly difficult opera to perform . . . probably. But I was too involved to notice until I thought about it later. I was drawn in immediately by the first scene, where baritone Daniel Belcher was running—and singing—onstage. His breathing—the truth of his humanity—was the biggest thing in the room. His singing was beautiful, but his skill melted into what he was doing. Belcher’s commitment to the role was such that I didn’t even consider his craft, which was tremendous, relentless. This effect permeated my sense of the whole show.

Afterward, a composer friend of mine said that he felt choked up on the verge of tears from the moment the opera began, and that the sensation didn’t fully release until the whole thing was over. There was simply no time for the analytical brain to weigh in for fear of missing something, and I had the feeling that we were all along for the ride. It felt as if we in the audience were breathing—sometimes not breathing—together in that rare communal experience that theater can sometimes be.

Beck’s score has a way of creating musical scenery that flows seamlessly from one number to the next. There are only two moments of total silence in the whole opera, and those moments of empty space are powerfully placed. The orchestra worked furiously yet unobtrusively throughout the evening to create a complex emotional backdrop.

There’s the scene, for example, where Brian is awake in the middle of the night, believing that the ceiling is pressing down on him. His body is curled on the floor, and his music is jagged and frightening. Then Jessie wakes up next to him and sings a beautiful lyric line: “Just a bad dream.” Even though her music sounds very different from Brian’s, her lullaby fits perfectly into his dissonant phrase.

Most of the time, I forgot that the music was there at all. “New music” or not, it is all there to tell the story.

“I had to write different kinds of music for the different worlds,” Beck explains about how he used different compositional languages as a kind of marker for each character or scenario. It works amazingly well. The set is stark to the point of looking unfinished, but the music effectively fills in the physical space with what is going on in everybody’s head. Apart from the characters of Jessie and Brian, Beck also wrote different-sounding music for their three sons, for the phantasm of Brian’s military comrades, and for what Brian calls “the Crazy,” which oozes out into the room and infects his surroundings. To create the sound of the Crazy, Beck makes occasional use of unidentifiable colors in the orchestra. He wants it to sound at times “as if the instruments were taken apart and put back together wrong.”

The opera also has many moments of high lyricism and sweetness. Beck draws on familiar musical styles like the spiritual sung by the women at the funeral and the spooky bowdlerized children’s song sung by the three boys. The soldiers in Brian’s imagination serve as a kind of Greek chorus, and their scenes together feel like the most comforting moments in the opera. Sometimes their music is bright and Bernstein-esque, sometimes smooth and soulful like a street corner a cappella group. In these scenes, Beck and Fleischmann movingly depict the bond between soldiers.

This was something that came up in the Q&A after the show—a striking number of U.S. veterans were in the audience that night, and many of them raised their hands and expressed gratitude to the production team. “I do know what that brotherhood is,” said one. “You captured that.”
The three boys and the three soldiers create an interesting parallel, and both sometimes function as narrator. Both are safe places for Brian. Jessie’s music is full of light and joy, and also the pain and frustration she feels as she fights for her family. Both singers managed to create the feeling of truth in their realities, and both sides were compelling. Brian’s “Crazy” did not feel like something alien, but like it was in my head. Both singers convinced me, sometimes in the same moment, that their reality was mine.

This might have been so convincing because of the connections forged by the creators of the opera and the family that inspired it. Fleischmann spent time in Buffalo getting to know the family while setting to work on the libretto. This, she explains, was necessary because Jessie and the kids were largely left out of the book. “He wanted to protect them,” she says, “but I felt like the arc of his book was ultimately about how he made it through in order to be there and be a part of that family.” Remarkably, Belcher and Brian have also become friends, relating on a personal level as men and fathers.

Brian himself has described the opera as a gift. He and Jessie have adopted a communication technique from the opera to help them deal with his loss of important memories, such as their son’s second birthday party and the night he asked her to marry him. This is addressed in a scene where Brian and Jessie are talking on the phone. They are struggling with Brian’s inability to remember important moments in their life together, and he asks Jessie to describe them. This scene was invented by Beck and Fleischmann, but Brian and his wife started doing this after watching their opera personas connect this way. “It’s been another stage of healing for Jessie and me,” says Brian.

One of the most devastating moments in the opera sees Brian reliving a traumatic experience in Iraq. In the scene, a group of children have been killed, and their mothers wail over their bodies. As Brian faces this horror, his superior officer castigates him. The sheer impact of sound at this point is overwhelming. The women’s voices create a hair-raising backdrop to the officer telling Brian that his sacrifice means nothing at all. Watching this scene, it occurred to me that no other art form could possibly communicate this as viscerally as opera.

Near the end of the show, I found myself overwhelmed with the realization that real-life soldiers do this work for me, for everyone in this room, so that we don’t have to. The truth of the story hit me like a ton of bricks. Maybe I wasn’t the only one. After many scenes I could hear people throughout the concert hall crying, sharing this communal moment with each other without shame.

Throughout the opera resonates an urgent question: How can a soldier be two people? All my life I have heard the familiar rhetoric of American heroism—the man of courage defending us from harm, who then returns to live with a loving family. But I had never fully considered how these two identities can split someone’s life in half. It seems like too much to ask of a human being to be responsible for life and death, to be constantly ready to die or to kill, and then to come home and somehow see the world as a safe place. This is the kernel of why this opera is such an important work that should be widely performed. It’s an American story that people need to hear.

Brian describes the writing of his book as a biological need. “The story was coming out one way or another,” he says. Belcher told me that this opera “had to be written,” as if its creation was inevitable. I can see his point. This is necessary art because it’s not just about the characters onstage, it’s also about those of us sitting in the audience. Without works like this, without this opera, how can regular civilians know these things? No one ever told me.

Emily Nelson

Emily Nelson is a soprano and teacher based in Salt Lake City. She teaches voice at Westminster College and World Music and Survey of Jazz at the University of Utah. She is a founding member and executive director of Utopia Early Music. She holds degrees in vocal performance, early music, and music history from Indiana University and the University of Utah, where she recently completed her doctoral studies in voice with Julie Wright-Costa.