by GARY FERRINGTON
Adam, an Afghanistan war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), returns to costal Louisiana at the height of BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Against this background of environmental disaster, Adam’s young wife, Mara, struggles to understand his grief and thoughts of suicide, while trying to hold together their marriage and to protect herself from his outbursts of anger and rage.
That’s the set up for the story told in The Canticle of the Black Madonna, a new opera by Portland composer Ethan Gans-Morse with libretto by Tiziana DellaRovere. The world premiere production takes place September 5-6 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre. But the opera and the ancillary community initiatives the producers have created to accompany it are already moving Oregonians to tears and to action even before the curtain rises.
“This opera is the product of a profound collaboration between me and Tiziana from start to finish, constantly influencing and guiding each other,” Gans-Morse wrote in an email to ArtsWatch. DellaRovere’s original libretto “responded to the pain of the world that was present every day throughout the spring and summer of 2010: the dual tragedies of the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the escalating war in Afghanistan with its concomitant levels of PTSD. In the face of these tragedies, she crafted a completely unique story of hope, healing, and reconciliation. Additionally, it was Tiziana who gave the show its verisimilitude, both by drawing on her experience with her own father, a decorated World War II veteran of the Italian Air Force, and by her tireless research into the lives and speech styles of the American military.”
I had the opportunity to attend an early workshop reading of this opera last year in Eugene. I was struck by how familiar the post-combat life with which Adam and Mara struggled seemed to me. I remembered my uncle who had survived some of the fiercest European battles of World War II, but couldn’t survive the peace that followed. Welcomed home by a family expecting that he’d resume a normal daily life, he instead found himself, over the months and years that followed, in and out of the state mental hospital, divorced, and estranged from his children. It was depression and alcoholism, not bombs and bullets, that in the end took his life.
My uncle’s condition was perhaps best identified at the time as “shell shock,” “war neurosis,” or “soldier’s heart” — terms used to describe what has been defined since 1980 as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder associated with extreme emotional trauma, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Of those thousands who have fought in our nations wars, many have returned with symptoms of PSTD including recurring memories or nightmares of battle events, anger, irritability, sleeplessness, and the feeling of numbness much like my uncle suffered and that Adam experiences in this opera.
In The Canticle, the mystical Black Madonna represents divine healing. It is through her embracing love that a path of reconciliation and hope transforms Mara and Adam and all those who witness it.
Similarly, the production has touched many who have been able to experience the work in development. “The Canticle of the Black Madonna opened my heart and brought new healing to me, 44 years after I returned from Vietnam,” said Bill Ritch, Silver Star recipient from Ashland and former West Point instructor. “This is a gift that should be shared with the world,” he said. The impact the opera is having on military veterans is documented in a series of videos, Art Saved My Life.
The September production of The Canticle of the Black Madonna is the culmination of four years of dedicated work that has brought together nationally renowned artistic talent, veterans, military families, and key supporters needed to produce this groundbreaking, professional performance. Although it’s created by a small Oregon nonprofit organization, the project has become more than a major cultural event. By also offering facilitated workshops, art therapy, guest lectures, and direct involvement of the veteran community, “the Canticle is a rallying call to address one of the most urgent social crises of our times, afflicting military and civilian communities alike,” according to the production’s web site.
Directed by Kristine McIntyre, who has directed more than 50 productions nation wide including the Metropolitan Opera, The Canticle features an all-professional cast including baritone Michael Mayes (Adam), soprano Lindsey Cafferky (Mara), and alto Gwendolyn Brown (Black Madonna), plus some of Portland’s top classical singers. Full cast and production details are available online, as are musical excerpts.
Opera is often said to be the most expensive art form, and since The Canticle is an “indie opera” developed without the support of an opera company. Composer Gans-Morse notes in an email that “this production is costing in the neighborhood of a quarter million dollars, and will ultimately reach well over $300,000 when we add in marketing, operations, direct services to veterans, fundraising, and other operating costs.”
To help with costs, the producers are running a funding campaign on Indiegogo. More than 20 per cent of its $75,000 target was raised in the first 48 hours, and it is currently ranked as one of the most popular campaigns in Indiegogo’s “trending music” category. Given the opera’s theme, so relevant to contemporary life, as well as its high production values and outstanding talent, many readers may want to become engaged in supporting this effort. Anima Mundi Productions is a 501(c)(3) non-profit arts initiative. Contributions, minus the cost of any selected incentives, are tax deductible.
“We have been overwhelmed by the support for our campaign,” said Gans-Morse. “This reinforces the importance of addressing PTSD for military veterans and their families, and the power of art to heal the soul.”
The opera is gaining widespread support, including accolades from well-known industry leaders. “In my career as an opera singer, I have premiered countless new works, but none has moved me so deeply as The Canticle of the Black Madonna,” said Pamela South, a Grammy award-winning soprano, in a news release. “This important story of extreme loss and profound love is both timely and timeless. I applaud every note of this opera.”
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Gary Ferrington is Senior Instructor Emeritus, Education, at the University of Oregon.