David T. Little’s hour-long monodrama Soldier Songs explores familiar territory — the plight of the war veteran — with rare, unflinching clarity and cinematic savvy in Opera Philadelphia’s new video version, that streams starting 8 p.m. Friday at operaphila.tv.
Like the Wilma Theater’s streaming Heroes of the Fourth Turning and New York’s MasterVoices four-part stream of Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns, this Opera Philadelphia production handily transcends “OK for lockdown” status in an artistic statement that’s likely to have lasting value.
That’s not to be taken for granted: I could barely get through Opera San Jose’s garage-theater production of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers. Opera Philadelphia’s informal “Love in the Park” series didn’t do much for me late last year.
Soldier Songs make a clean break from stage versions of this 2006 monodrama that depicted the mental deterioration of an isolated everyman war veteran amid a vague theatrical netherworld where viewers imagine what isn’t there.
In contrast, this version was shot in the outdoor Brandywine Conservancy with the kind of realism that can cause many operas to wilt but makes this one bloom.
The setting is a down-on-its-heels mobile home that hasn’t been mobile in ages, parked far from any road. It creates a larger world that didn’t make it onto the page of this earnest if sometimes heavy-handed work by the composer, who started writing it as a 26-year-old. (His career-making opera Dog Days was several years away).
Around the trailer is a bare-bones picnic table, a dart board, lots and lots of cigarette butts, and empty booze bottles. A poster inside says “Kill ‘em all.” The camera spies on many private moments, some real and others fantastical, recalling Martin Sheen’s flashbacks in Apocalypse Now.
Soldier Songs finds humor in childhood fantasies of war, but goes on to portray brutal video games that aren’t games after all, and an 18th-birthday cake whose red velvet interior looks like an open wound. And of course, there’s plenty of impotent, unfiltered rage that should resonate among the wider population in the current lockdown.
Because the character arrives with little sense about who he was before recruitment, one can’t judge him or the circumstances that sent him to war — only war itself and its impact on the human psyche.
Musically, the piece isn’t a series of songs, per se, but extended ariosos that go wherever they’re dramatically needed. Their structure seems to unravel along with the protagonist’s mental clarity, ultimately becoming psychologically disturbing collages of sound.
When Little’s music goes on too long for its own good, the production seizes upon the screen time to further illuminate the character’s inner world.
The lush, rural Brandywine landscape becomes a heartbreaking counterpoint to the tortured protagonist played by baritone Johnathan McCullough, who directed the production and co-wrote the screenplay with the noted director James Darrah.
The opera’s instrumental portion was prerecorded under Opera Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris — somewhat less operatically than some recordings, perhaps not to compete heavily with the video element. McCullough’s vocals are delivered on camera, avoiding the kind of lip-synching lapses that can break the spell of a film.
His fine, flexible, diction-friendly baritone voice has an extraordinary way of communicating intimate emotions to the camera without playing directly into it.
Still in his late 20s, McCullough emerged from the Curtis Institute as a promising vocal talent (heard in 2019 in Opera Philadelphia’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Far more significant, though, is his fearless theatrical vision.
In fact, the production warrants a “viewer discretion advised” disclaimer at the beginning, mainly for nasty language delivered in anger. But if the production didn’t go beyond the usual bounds of operatic gentility, it wouldn’t be doing its job.
The Opera Philadelphia film is available on-demand with a season pass until May 31 or as a seven-day rental for $25 at operaphila.tv.