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From Iraq to opera: Veteran Christian Ellis's journey to Fallujah

From Iraq to opera: Veteran Christian Ellis's journey to Fallujah
Jade Ratcliffe / City Opera Vancouver

Retired Marine sergeant Christian Ellis has turned his tour of duty in Iraq and the aftermath of returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder into an opera titled Fallujah. This is the first opera based on the war, and offers startling, musical insight into the mind of a vet struggling with PTSD, and how it affects those around him.

Ellis' experience as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004, during the bloodiest part of the war, left him with both physical and emotional damage. He suffered a broken back when his platoon was ambushed, and was one of the few survivors. Upon his return to this country, Ellis attended multiple retreats and events for veterans, hoping they would help him move on.

Ellis, who is originally from Phoenix, tried living in both Seattle and San Diego after returning to the States. After he was arrested for assault in San Diego and attempted suicide for the fourth time, a friend recommended he move to Denver.

Christian Ellis
Christian Ellis
Chad Galloway / Opus 59 Films / City Opera Vancouver

And it was here that Ellis found that his longtime love of music would prove to be the best form of medicine, giving him hope for the future.

Ellis has loved music since he was young, and credits his mother, a singer, with his musical talents. She pushed him to play the trumpet, and he also started singing when he was nine years old.

While at a fly-fishing retreat based on the award-winning short film Fish Out of Water, which explores the healing effect that nature has on veterans, Ellis met philanthropist Charles Annenberg Weingarten, vice president and director of the Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation, who was moved by his story and courage. "When I first met Christian I thought, 'This kid has angel dust.' He's a very special kid," says Weingarten. "I just asked him what he was doing before and a light bulb went off: We should do a opera on the modern-day war in Iraq."

And so Fallujah was born.

"He challenged me to figure out what I want in my life," says Ellis. "That's when I figured out that I wanted to go back and sing. Just from that one statement, that's how all this came about. I had pretty dark plans for when I came back, but it was when I met Charlie and he talked about this -- that really changed everything."

Christian Ellis and Charles Annenberg Weingarten.
Christian Ellis and Charles Annenberg Weingarten.
Chad Galloway / Opus 59 Films / City Opera Vancouver

The Annenberg Foundation gave a $250,000 grant to City Opera Vancouver to help develop Fallujah. Ellis partnered with New York-based librettist Heather Raffo and acclaimed Canadian composer Tobin Stokes, and together the trio created a heart-wrenching emotional exploration of the lives of American veterans and Iraqis alike.

"In order to get the music to be perfect, we had to find the perfect librettist. Words before music," says Ellis. "And the one candidate that stuck out to me the most was Heather because of her heritage, because she's half-American/half-Iraqi, and part of her family still lives in Baghdad. She's experienced a lot that none of the other librettists have experienced."

Raffo's writing style is based on true events with real people. She has researched the effect of war on Iraqis and Iraqi points of view, most recently in the play 9 Parts of Desire, about nine Iraqi women. But until she met Ellis, she had not examined the war from a Marine's point of view.

"I was taken with Christian's honesty and the complexity with which he was able to articulate his personal dilemmas," Raffo says. "Christian is an honest, open, complex and deeply feeling human being. So telling a story inspired by his life was very much in keeping with the type of work I do."

Raffo's words are emotionally draining and graphic at times, hitting the core of war-related issues with lines like "We're lying here like dinner. His brains are in my mouth" after a sniper attack kills a soldier. "I wanted to put the audience inside the restless mind of a Marine returning from war," says Raffo. "I wanted us all to collectively experience, without political point of view, how the memory of violence is carried by all who come into contact with it, how hard it is to heal from and how deep is the human desire to communicate even during conflict."

Stokes combined a lyrical opera that strays from the traditional approach with rock and metal music, as well as pulsating melodies that pull at the audience's emotions. "There's a lot of rock elements to it. There are elements that the composer [Stokes] calls thrash metal, which you hear and just say 'wow.' Never in a million years would you hear thrash metal in an opera," says Ellis.

Willy Miles-Grenzberg as "Lalo," Nickolas Meyer as "Rocks," Christopher Mayell as "Taylor" and Ken Lavigne as "Philip."
Willy Miles-Grenzberg as "Lalo," Nickolas Meyer as "Rocks," Christopher Mayell as "Taylor" and Ken Lavigne as "Philip."
Chad Galloway / Opus 59 Films / City Opera Vancouver

"The idea was a user-friendly opera," says Weingarten. "Not one that's highly sophisticated, but a contemporary tragedy that's a very rich narrative that you can follow. In many ways, it's a blend of rock and opera and an incredible multimedia film at the same time. It's a blend of old and now, modern and ancient."

The story is based on Ellis's life and its characters were inspired by people Ellis encountered, including fallen comrades. The plot follows a United States Marine Corps soldier, "Philip Houston," after his third suicide attempt. During his 72-hour hold in a veteran's hospital, flashbacks of his time in Iraq show the horrors of war and the struggles he went through.

American and Iraqi characters humanize the story, demonstrating to the audience that everyone involved has a lot to lose. Philip's relationship with his adoptive mother is juxtaposed with that of an Iraqi character named "Wissam" and his mother. Wissam is named after an Iraqi boy Ellis befriended, who sold DVDs to the troops before he was killed by insurgents who accused him of being a spy.

Presenting varying points of view was a crucial component. "It's an American story where you can see the side of what we call 'the enemy,'" Ellis notes. "If you can see what we identify as 'the enemy', will they still be the enemy? Why they are the way they are, how they became that way, what makes them so different from us...nothing. You don't see the Iraqis from an American point of view, you see them from a legitimate Iraqi point of view. Having that non-biased view makes it that much more rich."

Ellis did not set out to make this a politically charged opera; he says the story is not about blame, but rather understanding. "I want people to understand that with war there are always consequences, but this is not a political piece," he explains. "The consequences are what a lot of servicemen and women have to live with. It may help introduce a new method of treatment, instead of popping pills and sitting on the couch. Getting veterans involved in music, helping them confront it in a way that is not traditional, just therapeutic."

Ellis wants the opera to not only bring awareness to PTSD, but also offer an outlet for veterans to deal with their pain. "No doctors I've been to have ever been to combat, they can't connect in any way," says Ellis. "For me, music is the ultimate source of medicine, of therapy. I'd rather sing a song in my apartment than go to the VA and talk to a doctor who's constantly looking at his watch and makes you feel like he's in a hurry."

Weingarten, too, believes that art is an incredible healing instrument, and hopes this opera "penetrates your soul and makes you feel and think and understand the tragedy," adding that Fallujah is a way "purely to inspire people and move people."

While Fallujah has not yet received a full-fledged stage production, Explore.org, a multimedia organization led by the Annenberg Foundation, will be airing new webisodes every week starting today through September 11, which will include clips of the opera workshops in Vancouver, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews.

Someday, Ellis hopes that Fallujah will be performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where it can be seen by "a lot of people who make decisions that affect veterans."

Weingarten, however, would like to see the opera premier in Baghdad. "It's an amazing opportunity to inspire and introduce," he says. "The battle in Iraq is over, but the new war at home is just beginning."

"It's a story of hope, inspiration and survival," says Ellis. "I don't want this to be the typical traditional opera, where it's very flourished and colorful. Instead, I want it to be real and raw. I want people to be emotionally drained because the music just pulls that out."



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