The Falling and the Rising at Camp Dodge, Iowa

For several seasons now, Des Moines Metro Opera has nurtured a fruitful collaboration with the Headquarters of the Iowa National Guard at Camp Dodge in a northwest part of the city.

Previous seasons have seen successful stagings of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, and Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied. Performed in a large hall in the Freedom Center, these military themed pieces not only had great resonance, but talk backs after the show have allowed the general public to learn more about the challenges of being in the service and gain insights into what motivates these soldiers and their families to sign up.

To add another such operatic experience, this season DMMO chose to present composer Zach Redler and librettist Jerre Dye’s The Falling and the Rising, a poignant new opera that tells the story of a soldier’s journey back home to her daughter after being wounded in combat.

The script is based on interviews with military veterans in the Washington, D.C., area conducted by Dye and Redler, along with Staff Sgt. First Class Benjamin Hilgert, a tenor in the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus. The project was Hilgert’s brainchild.

The basic structure revolves around a female service member known simply as Soldier, who becomes a sort of Everywoman. She has just Skyped with her daughter back home from a deployment when she is seriously injured by a roadside explosive device. The tale follows Soldier as she wanders through an induced comatose state, hopefully on her way back to health and home.

In her altered state, Soldier has dream encounters with fellow service members, each on their own road to self-discovery: Toledo, Jumper, Colonel, and Homecoming Soldier. Each has a self-contained scenato bare their souls.

There is a great deal to admire in this performance. First, it is highly commendable that the company manages to transform what is essentially an empty space and make it a credible theatre up to DMMO’s usual high production values. That is no small feat.

At first, I wasn’t sure that set designer Adam Whittridge’s wide, high platform with stairs on each side, draped in dark cammo wouldn’t wear out its visual welcome. It didn’t, largely because of the varied and efficient lighting design by Bridget S. Williams who managed some lovely effects with quite limited means. Since this was about the people, not the scenic effects, the actors were helped by Ashleigh Poteat’s well-chosen costumes, and Margaret Sackman’s correct (or close enough) military hair designs. I am not sure if that beige military vehicle just off stage left is always there, but it was a great look.

Full cast
Full cast

Within this site-specific ambience, and assessing the limitations of the venue, director Joshua Borths has fashioned a beautiful, even poetic production, investing it with every possible nuance. There are some shortcomings in the dramaturgy, and Mr. Borths has assessed them and found the best possible story-telling solution. On first viewing, I either did not feel the Soldier was always involved enough in a given stretch, or I wondered if, in her coma, she was actually occasionally some other character, like the Colonel’s dead wife. We might have lost the thread of her illness, except the director created a wonderful piece of stagecraft.

After the Soldier was injured, put on a gurney, and hooked up to an IV, the tube was very long, and wherever she went on stage she remained visually connected to her “condition” by this faux umbilical cord. I also liked the practical Skype displays in the opening scenes. Borths lavished a lot of attention on creating believable yet archetypal characters. He made great use of the cast to change simple set pieces to suggest the different settings, and I especially enjoyed his inventive positionings on the platforms and stairs.

Michael Sakir has prior experience with this work, and it shows. Maestro Sakir led a very assured reading that was characterized by excellent orchestral work, rich detailing, and faultless coordination with the singers and the “pit,” which in this case was on the floor to the left of the playing area.

We couldn’t have asked for a more accomplished group of soloists. Tess Altiveros has performed the Soldier with various companies and the role is firmly in her voice. Her assured, glamorous soprano glistened in all registers, and was knitted to a solid technique that allow her to sail effortlessly through the multiple vocal demands made of the Soldier.

Sun-Ly Pierce was a coiled spring as an older soldier named Toledo, unable to give in to her feelings of having seen colleagues killed in battle. The rough atmosphere of her upbringing led her to escape to military services. Ms. Pierce, postures, rails, and rants against her suppressed feelings, and hurls out laser-like declamations with her solid, well-colored, fluid mezzo-soprano.

As the Colonel, Matthew Boehler was given perhaps the least well realized character as a man who has served his country with dedication but has lost his wife and now faces life alone. Nonetheless, Mr. Boehler deployed his warm, expressive, secure bass with impressive vocal security and emotional honesty.

The parachutist Jumper waxes enthusiastic about the thrills of his mid-air descents, and tenor Sam Mathis gave a totally infectious, balls-to-the-wall performance. Mr. Mathis’ robust tone and buzzy, overarching phrases were enough to keep him, and his scene buoyant and aloft. His every outpouring commanded attention and admiration.

As the Homecoming Soldier, Sankara Harouna was constrained by a wheelchair, and while making an appearance at his hometown church, he gives the congregation some transfixing testimony. Mr. Harouna (like Mr. Mathis) is a supremely talented Apprentice Artis, and his rolling, mature baritone was invested with beautiful phrasing, controlled delivery and commendable character delineation.

Time for a quibble. The amplification was not only distracting, but likely not necessary. Having heard an unamplified Glory Denied in this space, audibility was not an issue. Perhaps the creators mandated this choice? In any event, it was a mistake. No matter where the actors were in the playing space, the tubbily over-amplified “voice” came from the same, depressing place upstage center.

And now, something that is hard for me to address. My background: I spent forty years as a civilian supporting soldiers and families in the Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation (Entertainment) Program. For thirty-three years, I was privileged to do that in Europe, while, in the later part of my career, I saw the challenges posed by repeated deployments, including stressed families, missing body parts, death in combat, PTSD, and suicides. I believe firmly in telling these stories. I care deeply about the sacrifices these brave soldiers and families have made and continue to make. I applaud the good intentions of this piece.

But, in The Falling and the Rising,there seemed to me a Hallmark sanitized, generic representation of the reality of the horrors of war. I get why Jerre Dye’s libretto is so. It was co-commissioned by several major opera companies, but also by the US Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus. The latter will not, cannot allow anything truly upsetting to be presented lest they face negative opposition. So, the libretto is “soldier supportive-lite,” treading gingerly around the grim realities of soldiers’ real life combat stories.

Zach Redler’s music fares much better, and while it has soaring operatic aspirations a la Ricky Ian Gordon, it also pays homage to the Broadway skills of Jason Robert Brown, and Maltby and Shire. Mr. Redler is to be commended for providing such an accessible aural experience to underscore the too-easy sentiments of the vignettes.

I am a sucker for heart-tugging patriotism. It is hard to deny that including a chorus of local Veterans to round out the finale, for a rousing “Anthem,” was a logical choice, but it also seemed to be a bit unearned and manipulative.

In the end, the superb production values lavished on The Falling and the Rising were far more persuasive than the piece itself.

James Sohre

The Falling and the Rising
Music by Zach Redler
Libretto by Jerre Dye

Soldier: Tess Altiveros; Toledo: Sun-Ly Pierce; Colonel: Matt Boehner; Jumper: Sam Mathis; Homecoming Soldier: Sankara Harouna; Conductor: Michael Sakir; Director: Joshua Borths; Set Design: Adam Whittridge; Costume Design: Ashleigh Poteat; Lighting Design: Bridget S. Williams; Make-up/Hair Design: Margaret Sackman

Top Image: Tess Altiveros as Soldier and Matt Boehler as Colonel.

All photos by Duane Tinkey courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera.