For the past year, maybe longer, I’ve been the veterans’ service coordinator for the opera The Canticle of The Black Madonna. If you don’t know it’s a story that takes place in Louisiana in 2010. An Afghanistan War veteran returns home to his family business on the Gulf being run by his wife. He has a lot of problems due to the conflict he experienced overseas and then the oil spill happens, and then there’s a hurricane, AND the wife gets pregnant. Man, talk about drama.
The opera is the product of a four-year collaboration between composer Ethan Gans-Morse and librettist Tiziana DellaTovere. Together, they founded Anima Mundi Productions, which has raised the money, produced of the Opera, and offered a number of opportunities for veterans in the area. The two of them have been great to work with over this past year and they have a big hearts.
We had our setbacks and dramas outside of the performance too. Every production will, especially a production with this many moving parts. The budget of this opera is somewhere in the six figure range; I’m talking around three hundred thousand dollars. The costumes were made, the stage was built, the actors cast, and throw into this as much veteran projects as they’d let me get away with. There are somewhere around 50 cast and crew members. Some of us like to say that an opera about making this opera would be just as good.
So yes, we’ve had some outside drama, but this opera has done some incredible things. I have no doubt that this show will be amazing. I’ve been to most of the rehearsals since I have a part in it. The actors are the best. The costumes beautiful. The orchestra. The chorus. The world class talent they have with Kristine the director and Ryan the conductor. These are all the things you can go watch and they are obviously just awesome, but what you won’t see in the performance is the generosity of the cast, crew, and producers.
Before I go into the other great things we did for vets with this project I’d like to speak a little on the supernumeraries. Without giving too much away the supers represent the main characters tormented memories of his past combat. We are haunting him. When I showed up with the other combat veterans for the first rehearsal we really weren’t prepared. This is a story we’ve all experienced, told through song with some powerful voices. The first day my stage instruction included touching Michael Mayes’ shoulder while he’s on his knees lamenting and, holy shit, I could feel his voice in my arm. I watched the scenes play out where the main character had his doubts about his new life outside the military, his guilt in surviving while others died, his problems with alcohol and his wife. I lived all that, and now here it was on stage with me one of the players. I couldn’t come to a rehearsal without tearing up, man. And then when we rehearsed the second act the main character told his wife about the ambush he was in where his Humvee was blown up, his friends killed, and then he came back to Louisiana during a hurricane? I lived all that. I was blown up, my friends were killed, then I went to New Orleans for Katrina. There were times where this opera became too real for me. I’m not going to lie, it was hard just to be there. It was hard for some of the other supers as well, but worth doing. Some of the feedback I received from the other supers were incredibly positive.
Beyond casting combat veterans as supernumeraries (opera extras), there were some other amazing things happening. We did three weeks of art therapy sessions with veterans from these current wars to Vietnam. One of the veterans on the project needed almost 1,200 dollars or else the storage facility she had all her worldly possessions in would auction her stuff off. Anima Mundi paid that bill for her. The cast and crew raised money that I’ve used to help pay a combat veteran’s rent, and another combat veteran’s phone bill. We made sure that there would be a night all veterans could come and watch the performance for free and we also made sure there would be services and counsellors there just in case it becomes too real for them like it did for me in the beginning. After this is over we are having a panel discussion on what we’ve learned and how art can help combat veterans heal. This discussion will have some of the supers, a retired chaplain, and the executive producers of the opera.
The show kicks off on Friday night and plays Saturday night as well. If you’re a veteran come out on Thursday night to watch the final dress rehearsal. While ‘the making of’ might just make a good opera I’ll have to say that the opera we’ve put together kicks ass. I hope you get a chance to see it.
Here are some behind the scene photos: