Empathy and The Falling and the Rising

Librettist-playwright-performer-director-teacher Jerre Dye's current project — not his latest, since Dye's always working well into the future — is being staged over the next couple of weekends at Opera Memphis' seventh annual Midtown Opera Festival. The Falling and the Rising is a soldier's story, both contemporary and timeless, and well suited for a modern operatic treatment. Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty, citing sacrifices large and small made by the military, says, "We need to feel them, if only for an hour or two, and that sort of empathy is what opera is best at creating."

The story told by the opera is that of a soldier fighting overseas whose world is forever changed by an IED — improvised explosive device — that goes off while she's on patrol. It results in a traumatic brain injury, and military doctors induce a coma to save her life. In this liminal dream space, she meets other soldiers and takes in their strength and toughness.

click to enlarge Ben Hilgert, Zach Redler, and - Jerre Dye
  • Ben Hilgert, Zach Redler, and Jerre Dye

The genesis of the idea came from Staff Sergeant Benjamin Hilgert, a tenor in the Soldiers' Chorus, the vocal component of the U.S. Army Field Band. He wanted to do an opera that embraced the military spirit, but it wasn't until he connected with Dye that it began to take shape.

That meeting took place thanks to a notion Canty had a few years ago. Canty knew of Dye's abilities and arranged for a commission of "Ghosts of Crosstown," four short opera works with music from different composers. They were first performed in 2014 as part of the second annual Midtown Opera Festival and staged on the loading dock of the old Sears building as well as at Playhouse on the Square.

"Those short pieces acted like calling cards," Dye says, "because they were mined from true stories." One of those subsequent performances was at an Opera America conference that Hilgert had attended. "Ben saw the piece and said, 'I want to talk to that guy,'" Dye says. "He asked me, 'Would you be interested in writing a short piece for us?' And I was like, 'Of course I would.'"

The third member of the creative collaboration is composer Zach Redler, who Dye had worked with on one of the Crosstown pieces.

That 10- or 15-minute piece turned into a full-length chamber piece as interest developed and various organizations supported it with joint commissions. The U.S. Army Field Band was also involved in the commissioning along with Opera Memphis, Arizona Opera, San Diego Opera, Seattle Opera, and Texas Christian University.

Developing the story was a particularly affecting process for all involved. It evolved from interviews that Dye, Hilgert, and Redler did with dozens of soldiers and veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and elsewhere.

The first interview on the first day was a soldier named Tyler, who was recovering from a traumatic brain injury. He'd been in a coma for a long time and "was eager to talk about what that experience was like," Dye says. "And what it was like to come out, what recovery looks like, and he talked about it in some beautiful, subtle ways."

That quickly convinced the collaborators to tell not about an injury but about what happens in a coma, what the brain is thinking about and what kind of information is being processed. And it allowed them to put several voices in the story.

But there was a particular revelation that came only when the interview was over. "I ran out of questions at the end of the interview," Dye says, "and I ignorantly and clumsily said to Tyler, 'So, what's next for you?' And there was a little bit of silence and he looked at me with the most amazing soulful eyes and said, 'There's nothing else. There is just this. There is just right here and right now.' Yeah. After I wiped the tears from my eyes, I just went, 'Okay, there's my Zen message for the day. And that's an aria.'"

The Falling and the Rising performs April 6th, 12th, and 13th at 7:30 p.m. with members of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra playing. Tickets: www.operamemphis.org/tickets or call 257-3100.

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