Seattle Opera’s ‘The Falling and the Rising’ powerfully tells soldiers’ stories

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Opera review

Perhaps the most gratifying thing about “The Falling and the Rising,” the impressive one-act whose production by Seattle Opera opened Nov. 15 and runs through Nov. 24, is what it indicates about the company’s priorities. The attention it’s been paying to new work — incisive, relatable, concerned with social issues and intent on bringing underrepresented voices to the opera stage — is no fluke, but a central focus of its mission.

“The Falling and the Rising” follows “As One,” Laura Kaminsky’s examination of a trans person’s path to self-realization (staged in 2016), and “An American Dream,” Jack Perla’s Seattle-set tale of the Japanese American incarceration and its aftermath (2015 and 2017), as the latest example of Seattle Opera’s commitment.

Premiered in Texas in April 2018, “The Falling and the Rising” is based on interviews with military veterans in the Washington, D.C., area conducted by librettist Jerre Dye, composer Zach Redler and Staff Sgt. First Class Benjamin Hilgert, a tenor in the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus. The project was Hilgert’s brainchild.

Dye says the first question asked of participants was, “What do you want civilians to know about your service that you suspect they don’t really understand?”

Dye then shaped those reflections into six scenes. The central character, designated only as the Soldier (sung by an enthralling Tess Altiveros), provides the framing device. Injured in an attack while Skyping with her daughter back home, her comatose state results in four dream sequences based directly on those interviews: An older soldier named Toledo (Elizabeth Galafa) recalls her tough, wrong-side-of-the-tracks upbringing and how it led her to the service; a parachute jumper (Tim Janecke) rhapsodizes about his profession’s midair exhilaration; a colonel (Damien Geter) who lost his wife faces dinner alone; and a man (Jorell Williams) in a wheelchair, visiting his hometown church, gives testimony to the congregation. Those five characters are the focus of the first five scenes; in the finale, which rounds out the Soldier’s tale, a 15-voice choir joins the cast for a rousing “Anthem.”

“We wanted the piece to investigate the idea of sacrifice and what it really means in the life of the soldier,” Dye said, and to further that goal, Seattle Opera cast 15 actual veterans as chorus members, recruited through Path with Art, a Seattle organization that provides creative opportunities to people in recovery.

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Composer Redler’s triumph was to strike a near-ideal balance, in setting Dye’s text, between tuneful immediacy and preserving the naturalistic speech idiom of the interviewees’ monologues. Practically every word is understandable, and they’re sung to music you can recall five seconds later. Because of the prominence of the guitar in Redler’s scoring for the 11-person orchestra (led by Michael Sakir), his musical style suggests singer/songwriter folk rock as its basis, especially in the riffs and vamps that support and punctuate the vocal flights.

There are plenty of opportunities for the five voices to soar, Puccini-like, and this mix provides well-crafted musical comfort food. (If you love “Let It Go,” I guarantee you will love the Soldier’s opening aria.) Redler also has a knack for ear-catching orchestral details: a bright Wagnerian horn fanfare, a burble of marimba and, in the Colonel’s lament, a sudden hint of Renaissance music as everyone drops out except motionless, vibratoless strings.

Video projections, designed by K. Brandon Bell, on a large screen at the rear of the simple set enhance the characters’ reminiscences — most strikingly in the Jumper’s scene, which includes footage of an actual skydive from the diver’s point of view. (Acrophobic? You’ll want to avert your eyes.)

“The Falling and the Rising” is the first show staged in Tagney Jones Hall, the gleaming glass box fronting Mercer Street in the new Seattle Opera Center, and it’s perfect for a work of this intimacy; it’d get lost in McCaw Hall.

Though a mainstay of literature, theater and film, the military experience has been all but absent from the operatic stage (at best, used as a side garnish) despite its inherent edge-of-your-seat drama and emotionalism. But “The Falling and the Rising” succeeds not only as true and powerful, but necessary in a time when our country is at risk of forgetting the ongoing effects — on those who fight and on those who wait for their return — of America’s longest war.

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“The Falling and the Rising,” by Zach Redler and Jerre Dye. Through Nov. 24; Seattle Opera Center, Tagney Jones Hall, 363 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets start at $35; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org

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