When you think of opera, you probably don’t imagine a contemporary story about wounded veterans — or untrained singers taking the stage. But both are aspects of Seattle Opera’s “The Falling and the Rising.”
Most of the production’s chorus have never been in an opera or even on stage before. The chorus members are all veterans.
“The Falling and The Rising,” which was originally commissioned for the U.S. Army Field Band and was initially produced by Memphis Opera, tells the story of a soldier who’s deployed overseas. After an improvised explosive device hits her vehicle, the soldier ends up with a traumatic brain injury. She’s put in a medically induced coma and then in a sort of dream-like state has visions of other soldiers who sing about their own struggles.
“There’s an added dimension and I feel like an added responsibility for sure when you’re trying to do justice to real stories and these are all based off of real people,” explains soprano Tess Altiveros, who sings the part of the female soldier.
The opera’s creators traveled the country talking with wounded veterans and people currently in the military and based the opera on those conversations.
The material was a revelation for Altiveros.
“Coming face to face with these stories and this material, I’ve really been struck by my own ignorance around this community,” she says.
Altiveros, who grew up in Seattle, says she just never had much contact with veterans, something that’s increasingly true of the general population. Performing in the opera has given her a better understanding of some of the sacrifices that people who join the military make — such as being away from family. As the opera opens, her character is using her laptop to record a happy birthday message to her 13-year-old daughter back in the States.
It’s emotional singing about being a better mother and a better soldier.
“There’s a moment where here come the tears and she has a moment to just fall apart,” says Altiveros, who has a daughter of her own.
Librettist Jerre Dye says working with veterans and having them on stage singing alongside professional performers is part of building a conversation between people who’ve served and people who haven’t. Seattle Opera worked with Path with Art to help find choral performers.
Performer Mertiss Jay Thompson was in the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s. He recalls the first time the veterans and the professionals sang together.
“The lady behind me she had this voice and I had to turn around and see where this voice was coming from. Wow! It was great,” he says.
“We have so little experience in that (opera) realm and we’re sitting in the back feeling very humbled. And then we got to sing together and they look at us and they’ve got the same look on their face. We’re all just in awe of this other group of people.”
Thompson says one of the most gratifying things about being in the production is the bond that’s developed between both groups of people.
“The Falling and the Rising” runs Nov. 15-24 at Seattle Opera.