Review: Chicago Opera Theater Opens Season With a Compelling Timeline of War and Its Aftermath with Soldier Songs

Soldier Songs is a solo operatic performance that blends the genres of classical and heavy metal. I thought that I had never heard anything like it, however, the parallels between the two became obvious as explained by composer David T. Little and conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya. Chicago Opera Theater's (COT) general director Lawrence Edelson led the pre-show discussion with fascinating questions that underlined the unique performances and adaptations from COT. I have seen quite a few performances from COT such as Quamino’s Map and The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, which were beautiful and touching recreations based on real-life figures and eras in history.

In Soldier Songs, COT again sheds light on a subject not done in opera—the repercussions of war and how the idea of death in battle as an honor is imbued in American culture. In the discussion, Little revealed that he based Soldier Songs on interviews with people that he knew personally from WWII, Vietnam, and both Persian Gulf wars. The veterans' voices were heard on recording in between the stunning performance by baritone David Adam Moore. The haunting voices say, "I never talk about this with anyone," "war is killing, and to be willing to go somewhere and die."

L-R David Adam Moore and Lidiya Yankovskaya. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The performance begins with a basso profundo moan that is amplified to make it evident as a character lost for words and in emotional turmoil. Traditional opera is not amplified but Soldier Songs uses amplification and unusual items for percussion to get a particular sound that feeds into the heavy metal influence. Little also pointed out that opera and heavy metal are more alike than different. Both have deep drama in the lyrics and over-the-top staging. Take a listen to "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath and then you can watch a performance with Ozzy Osbourne. Compare that with a Wagner opera such as the recently reviewed The Flying Dutchman. Ghosts in the hold of a ship that may be an illusion and characters bathed in red light have the same visual and musical drama.

David Adam Moore is a regular at the Met in New York and flew in to cover the role originally cast with Nathan Gunn. He is the originator and recorder of this role. Moore is known for contemporary music interpretation and is currently appearing in Dead Man Walking at the Met, so he also had to fly back the same night. Moore was dressed all in black with a structured shirt that had a military vibe. He has a gorgeous and supple baritone with superior acting skills. The character goes from a little boy wanting to be a toy soldier to an embittered and remorseful old man reflecting on what he saw and would like to forget. Moore uses a falsetto for the toy soldier and the actions of a little boy. Seeing Soldier Songs was not the first time I had ruminated on the American obsession with guns and war. Boys in particular were given little plastic soldiers and cap guns to play war.

L-R David Adam Moore and Lidiya Yankovskaya. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Moore's last character is a father who does not want to open the door to two Marines who have come to give him the flag of his dead son. Rage, grief, and anguish are conveyed by Moore with his voice, face, and body. His pleas to "give me back my son" were gut-wrenching. He plays the teenager obsessed with war video games, the young man waiting for his number to come up and then counting down the days until he can go home because it is nothing like the thrill of glory he expected.

Conductor Yankovskaya pointed out that a metal-infused score expanded the palette of sound. A glockenspiel's wooden keys have a different sound color than the more piercing xylophone. The flute part is played against a narration about what a munition does to a body and how there is blood on the leaves. The musical texture matched the images of a jungle and pictures from explosions in Vietnam broadcast on television when I was a kid. The music and performances blew my mind. I was on the edge of my seat knowing what was to come but the performance still came as an intense emotional journey.

The COT Chamber Orchestra was really great playing this score and with the use of instruments that weren't played in the traditional manner. The musicians switched instruments and individually played multiple instruments as well. The sound was perfect in the room at the Epiphany Center for the Arts, a repurposed Episcopal church built in 1885. The towering arches and faded frescoes added to the drama of Soldier Songs. What better place for an elegy than an old church sanctuary?

Yankovskaya was a masterful conductor of Soldier Songs. She spoke of how they came up with different items to get a particular sound, including sheet metal—and how this piece expanded what can be done with a chamber orchestra. A special thanks was given to sound designer Garth MacAleavey and it was well-deserved. The sirens, voice-overs, and mixing of the sound were excellent. I find it amusing that the people at the door were handing out disposable earplugs in case the sound was too intense. The sound was perfect, and the music was intense as was the theme of Soldier Songs but I didn't want to miss a note. Composer Little is an artist to watch and I hope to hear more from him. Soldier Songs played for one night at Epiphany Center for the Arts, 201 S. Ashland Ave., near the United Center on October 5.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.