Placing an opera in present day society is a poignant but risky decision. With settings and events that the audience can readily identify, the emotional impact of the opera is more immediate; however, overt commentary on the very current lives of an audience can backfire.
It is far easier to hide acerbic social commentary and political dissent within the remoteness of a period drama. The mirror held up to the audience is opaque, foggy; they only barely recognize themselves and their world in the reflection. But if you clean the glass and turn off the safety, the truth shines too brightly for many to tolerate.
In The Long Walk, a new opera commissioned by the American Lyric Theater with libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann and an inchoate score by Jeremy Howard Beck, the wounds of the very recent Iraq War are on raw display. Founded in 2005, ALT is dedicated to the development of new works and the nurturing and mentoring of the next generation of opera writers. In 2007, the company initiated its Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), a full-time resident artist program that fosters the talents of writers and composers who will be penning the next generation of new operatic repertoire. In January 2013, ALT was the only company to be awarded two Repertoire Development Grants by OPERA America; The Long Walk received one and La Reina, by Laura Sosa Pedroza and Jorge Sosa, received the other.
Based on Brian Castner’s celebrated memoir of the same name, published in 2012, the opera tells Castner’s experiences as a bomb technician in the Iraq War and how he copes with life in the blurred, shell-shocked aftermath. It’s a compelling, relevant story that concentrates on the inner lives of the characters, who are caught up in one of the most defining moments of the 21st century. The work is still in the early stages of development, but it is already shaping up to be a testimony of our interesting times.
ALT’s “The Living Libretto” series gives the resident artists an opportunity to hear their work-in-progress and to receive criticism and feedback from their fellow resident artists, ALT faculty, industry professionals, and an audience of dedicated opera-goers. The February 6 reading of The Long Walk, the third in the series, lasted forty-five minutes and gave a rarely witnessed insight into the creative process of libretto writing. The text, just half the length of today’s already truncated straight plays, is carefully sculpted to allow for agency of the music. Ten professional actors – not opera singers – brought the story, rough patches and moments of glimmering promise, to life.
A post-reading discussion moderated by founder and producing artistic director, Lawrence Edelson, focused on bringing together the creative forces of Fleischmann and Beck with the audience. Participants were guided by Edelson through choreographer Liz Lerman’s “Critical Response Method,” which colored the discussion with a vibrant intimacy and positivity as audience members and the creators asked each other questions, gave opinions, and revealed what about the work resonated with them.
The discussion participants contributed valuable feedback, constructive and laudatory, the evening’s most effective comment was contributed by a friend of Brian Castner, who had served alongside the officer in Iraq. “You were able to capture exactly how it is to be over there, and how difficult it is to adjust to being home,” he told Fleischmann.
Opera goers will have a chance to see and hear more of The Long Walk this June, when selections from the work will be performed at ALT’s inaugural festival, InsightALT.