“It’s absolutely gut-wrenching,” says Annie Burridge, general director of Austin Opera, about “Soldier Songs,” which plays Friday and Saturday at the Paramount Theatre. “You hear these stunning arias in the final scenes. A veteran sees uniformed men coming to his door to say that his son has died in combat. He wants to set his car on fire. Over and over, he sings: ‘Bring me back my son!’ In a way, the opera being only an hour long is a blessing because of the intensity.”
A visceral show with rock-infused and minimalist music that transports the audience into combat, “Soldier Songs” — coming right on the heels of Austin Opera’s smashing version of “Silent Night,” another new opera, this one about a brief World War I truce — is the first project out of the gate for “Opera ATX,” Burridge’s effort to expand her group’s footprint outside of the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
Composed by David T. Little, it stars David Adam Moore as the solo performer, in an immersive production wrapped in projections and amplifications, then packaged for the road by producer Beth Morrison.
“We wanted to get Opera ATX out quickly,” Burridge says. “And Beth Morrison Projects had a production of ‘Soldier Songs’ that we could pick up and drop into the Paramount. That allowed us to launch the initiative sooner.”
“Soldier Songs,” based on interviews Little conducted with family members and friends who had served in multiple wars, was tested for smaller-than-usual venues in Houston and has played New York, Los Angeles, San Diego and Atlanta, among other markets.
“I encountered Little's work in Philadelphia,” Burridge says of her previous home operatic base, where Little also served as composer in residence. “We did a workshop for 'JFK,' which premiered at Fort Worth. Then we did a presentation of part of David's opera “Dog Days.” During both experiences I felt I had been punched in the gut.”
The critics, too, have paved the way for the rapid advance of “Soldier Songs” across the country.
“At once seductive and repulsive, the presentation provided further evidence of Little’s fast-rising stock as a vital theatrical creator,” wrote Steve Smith for the New York Times. “Little also alludes to mass-media saturation; a virtual-reality distancing between a soldier’s actions and their results; and jingoistic longing for military dominance. At several points he uses the actual recorded voices of veterans: notably, both female and male.”
“David T. Little's opera ‘Soldier Songs’ should be required viewing for anybody who has not seen active service,” wrote Jill Steinberg for Opera News. “The harrowing middle section employs both martial riffs and visceral, heavy-metal-infused beats. A moaning cello expresses the father's anguish until it surrenders into an uneasy contrapuntal truce with a fife and drum tattoo.”
“There were no supertitles, but none were necessary,” wrote Joanne Syndey Lessner in the Los Angeles Times. “With (David Adam) Moore as our increasingly tortured and isolated guide, we could always feel where we were in his journey from innocence to the consequences of real-world horror.”
The audience will be invited to stick around after both performances to discuss, among other things, the ongoing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such a discussion should be easier in the Paramount — no one will be seated in the upper balconies for the performances — than at the Long Center’s Dell Hall because of the comparative intimacy.
Another of the advantages of smaller venues: Producing at the Paramount costs 80 percent less than at the Long Center. Austin Opera plans to announce its next Opera ATX project at Saturday’s performance of “Soldier Songs.”