On the horizon’s right rises a majestic, old-growth black-lace tree. On the left, a man slowly rises and begins to walk, then run, then flee—his anxiety a stark contrast with nature’s imperturbability. So begins the riveting film of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, Opera Philadelphia’s latest entry in the company’s ever-blossoming, increasingly adventurous, artistically successful foray into the potential minefield that is virtual opera.
The Soldier at home
Alongside repetitive spoken words that undergird the opera’s affecting libretto, the Soldier (the marvelous Johnathan McCullough) moves haltingly through a detritus-littered field toward a run-down camper van nestled in a hollow. His lair is filled with junk or cherished mementos, something left to the viewer to decide. And out of these static props, steam rises from a coffeemaker and the hero (anti-hero?) rises from his bed and sings the first aria. Alternating between a rich baritone and falsetto, the Soldier remembers a childhood playing with his toy jeep and GI Joe doll, banging away at intruders until “victory is mine, and there is no enemy, but peace.” Or is it “no enemy but peace”?
Next, he plays an increasingly violent, frenetic video game, intoning a fighter’s fantasy: “If I get shot, I’ll just start over, play the game again.” Throughout its 50 minutes, this riveting opera alternates between the “present” of a still-wounded man and various iterations of “then.” He keeps visiting his gun in a drawer and remembers an 18th-birthday cake that morphs into a battlefield as his van becomes a tank. Memories torment him, as he moves in and out of reality, remembering old friends, “steel rain” (incoming ordnance), and “murder holes.” The Soldier plays chess with himself and longs for sanity in the affecting aria “Someone Yell Cut.” He relives and recreates the violent actions of a man who lost his son. And at the film’s mysterious end, a chant repeats, “I wish I could tell you that everything will be all right.”
Curtis grad McCullough—indomitably expressive, continually focused, and deeply moving—sang live during filming to a recorded track of an Opera Philadelphia orchestra septet (conducted by Corrado Rovaris). Impressively, McCullough also directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with James Darrah, a producer (with John Toia) of this disturbingly luminous film. Phil Bradshaw was the relentlessly inventive director of photography.
Little is, among other things, an accomplished rock drummer, and the opera’s score opens with the sound of booming (guns? drums?); percussion functions as continuo through the entire work. Soldier Songs was inspired more than a decade ago by a conversation with the composer’s high-school friend just returned from Iraq, and Little drew his intensely personalized libretto—some spoken, some sung—from powerful first-person reminiscences of six veterans from five American conflicts. Early on, one of them foregrounds the opera’s emotional motif: “War gives the hostility that is inside of us permission to come out,” and the opera never loses sight of that chilling mantra.
Soldier Songs was commissioned as a chamber work in 2006 by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. But here, visually centered around the decaying camper that both shelters and confines, it translates magnificently to film. Scenes slide seamlessly, grounded by tale-telling visuals that clearly signal time, place, and the Soldier’s mental state. In a staged production, there are always design elements—props, furniture, set painting—that may deeply inform the performer but are only partially visible to the audience. But film allows the viewer to focus on and be informed by such details, and here each is chosen with care to inform and move the story forward, or backward, or inward.
No strangers here
Visually, this production could have been filmed in any open field. But it was an intuitive, inspired choice to set Soldier Songs on Birmingham Hill (near Chadds Ford), a now-peaceful swath of green in the midst of the sprawling Brandywine Battlefield. In 1777, over these acres of great beauty—much of it now preserved—a great battle swirled. Many soldiers from both sides traversed these hills and invaded these buildings (including the Quakers’ Birmingham Meetinghouse), and there they died, lying now beneath these fields. It’s a powerful site.
The film is fed by this dichotomy of serenity wrested from turmoil, a place with green expanses watered by the blood of thousands. Its acres are now trod by visitors who barely (or rarely) remember the price with which these fields were bought. But in fact, soldiers (including this Soldier) are not strangers here. They still live on and under this land, ghosts from the time in which our democracy was forged. The filmmakers chose a site that would inform their work, and propelled by McCullough’s unforgettable performance, made this magnetic film. It is a vivid, gritty, oddly beautiful, and ultimately shattering portrait of what our country owes to those who fought—and still fight—for this, our country.
Image description: A still from Soldier Songs. Performer Johnathan McCullough is shown from the shoulders up with a bright, cloudy sky behind him, the sun flaring in the camera. He wears a camouflage shirt and army helmet and has a pained expression.
Image description: A photo from the set of Soldier Songs. Performer Johnathan McCollough, a white man with messy brown hair and a beard, sits on a chair outside a dilapidated trailer, his feet on a plastic crate. He wears jeans and an unbuttoned camouflage shirt. A jumble of items around him includes a barbecue, a shopping cart, folding chairs, and an American flag.
What, When, Where
Soldier Songs. Music and libretto by David T. Little. Directed by and starring Johnathan McCullough; screenplay by James Darrah and Johnathan McCullough. Music directed by Corrado Rovaris. Available to stream through May 31, 2021. Buy subscriptions or individual tickets at operaphila.tv.
Know before you watch: Soldier Songs contains strong language, strobe lighting, and depiction of violence, military combat, and PTSD.