COT opens 50th season with Little’s powerful “Soldier Songs” 

Fri Oct 06, 2023 at 2:39 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Baritone David Adam Moore and conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya in David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, presented by Chicago Opera Theater Thursday night at Epiphany Center for the Arts. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Better late than never.

Chicago Opera Theater opened its 50th anniversary season this week with a performance of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs. COT had originally scheduled Little’s work for May of 2020 but that event fell victim to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Then just last month, Nathan Gunn dropped out of the soloist role due to a family emergency and was replaced by David Adam Moore. Soldier Songs finally had its Chicago premiere Thursday night at the Epiphany Center for the Arts.

The belated debut takes place at an important anniversary season and a transitional time for the company.

COT has had its ups and downs over the past five decades, with its artistic fortunes inevitably tied to whoever happens to be leading the company at the time. The Brian Dickie era was a clear high point, followed by Andreas Mitisek’s less successful tenure. 

The duo team of general director Ashley Magnus and music director Lidiya Yankovskaya started strong by bringing Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick to Chicago audiences in an acclaimed production. Unfortunately, the team dissipated much of their artistic momentum and goodwill in record time with a series of self-inflicted blunders (a campy Carmen with a female Don Jose) and dubious programming of not-good pieces that seemed chosen more for politics than artistic merit.

Magnus departed last May and COT’s amiable new general director Lawrence Edelson appears to be setting the company back on a more professional and artistically sound course. This season’s COT programming is a marked improvement from the recent past. 

Soldier Songs certainly made a powerful start to COT’s golden anniversary season if a decidedly dark and downbeat one. (Though Soldier Songs seems like The Merry Widow next to Little’s bizarro Dog Days.)

Written in 2006 for the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the work is the result of the composer’s reexamination of his own previously absolutist “anti-war” position (Is anyone “pro-war?”) to a perspective that is more nuanced and empathetic to the plight of the soldiers themselves.

The work is not a traditional song-cycle but, as Little put it in his pre-chat with Edelson and Yankovskaya, a “theatrical cantata.” (Though it was presented Thursday in traditional concert format without much stagecraft apart from dramatic lighting.) The concept grew out of LIttle’s conversations with family members and friends who have served, recordings of which form a key part of Soldier Songs.

The 50-minute piece is scored for baritone soloist and amplified septet, and cast in three parts. “Child” starts with a naive boy’s view of war, playing with toy guns and later violent video games. “Warrior” shows the adolescent soldier letting loose his teen anger in battle and later the human carnage he witnesses and inflicts on others. “Elder,” shows the former soldier in maturity and then old age—reflective and melancholy about his experiences, yet still damaged from the painful wartime memories.

The work begins with a Prelude featuring the reminiscences of soldiers (“I never talked about this with anybody”) for several minutes. The baritone soloist enters as a child —in an awkward high falsetto— (“I’m gonna grow up to be a toy soldier”) and then an adolescent eager to unleash incipient teen violence with video games.

“Warrior” depicts the soldier in combat, prepping with heavy metal music before a battle (“I like to listen to Metallica to keep myself in a rage.”) followed by a dirge-like section for the ensemble. The soldier becomes disillusioned at the violence and bloodshed, struck that it is not like a video game or movie (“I don’t know what to do” and “Someone yell ‘Cut!’”). As an old man the soldier reflects on his experiences, and there are more angry outbursts and spoken memories.

Little’s heavily amplified music is cast in an aggressive, hard-driving fashion that suits the more violent sections— depicting war with rampaging percussion, scraping high violin sounds and squealing clarinet and flute set against massive electronic chords and ominous rumbling. There are some ruminative sections but one wishes there were more to better balance the piece.

While there are moments of undeniable power, Soldier Songs feels structurally unsatisfying and lacks a convincing dramatic arc. In one of the final settings a father grieves for his fallen soldier son (“My son…my son.”), the words repeated and affectingly sung by Moore as it slowly fades. That would have been an effective ending but then the recorded voices return and the piece continues.

Ultimately, it seems like Little is trying to do too much in a piece that runs less than an hour. The documentary aspect of the taped voices doesn’t always cohere with the live singing, and Little’s attempts at broader statements in his libretto feel superficial and wind up detracting from the more personal and compelling soloist-protagonist, symbolic as he is.

That is no fault of David Moore who was first class across the board. The singer—who was released for this event by the Met, where he is covering Ryan McKinny in Dead Man Walking—created the solo role of Soldier Songs and his experience showed in this challenging part. His (amplified) singing displayed a mellifluous, nut-brown baritone, and Moore encompassed the anger as well as the pain and resignation of the soldier, bringing a great depth of feeling to his performance. Even just sitting between songs, his very posture seemed to reflect the psychically damaged protagonist.

Yankovskaya was a skillful guide in Little’s often-raucous score, balancing the soloist, amplified players and electronics and keeping a firm through-line across Little’s twelve continuous sections. The seven musicians (violinist Jeff Yang, cellist Matthew Agnew, clarinetist Gene Collerd, flutist Jennie Oh Brown, pianist Jonthan Gmeinder and percussionists Andrew Cierny and Sarah Christiansen) provided intensely committed, full-tilt playing throughout.

One practical problem Thursday night was that the sound mix was often way too loud. (This seems to be a recurring issue with Little-supervised performances as with his Black Lodge at Opera Philadelphia a year ago.) Even for one who listens to some uncompromising metal bands, the cochlea-damaging volume was often painful Thursday night. I don’t think your ears should still be ringing the next day.

One thing that, sadly, hasn’t changed at COT is the paltry “program” that was an embarrassment even for a one-night event. No information about Soldier Songs apart from its title on the single laminated sheet, let alone the breakdown of the three parts and titles of the dozen individual sections. A QR code on the sheet takes you to the COT website, where, apart from a general note by the composer, there is zero detail on the structure and layout of the piece. 

The one-sheet does manage to find room for the names of 23 COT board members and honorary trustees. Priorities.

Chicago Opera Theater presents Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose December 8 and 10 at the Harris Theater.

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