The New York premiere of “Soldier Songs” will be at the Schimmel Center this week as reported by the New York Times and the New Yorker.
From the New York Times:
“Shock and awe” entered the mainstream vocabulary in 2003, when the term denoted the military doctrine of an overwhelming display of force that would be used in the invasion of Iraq. That the designation can have a markedly different meaning to the men and women who serve in the armed forces is a central point of “Soldier Songs,” a musical theater piece by the composer David T. Little. When the work had its New York premiere on Friday night at Pace University’s Schimmel Center for the Arts, shock and awe took on a new meaning: that of staging aesthetic.
Mr. Little completed “Soldier Songs” in 2006, basing its libretto on interviews he conducted with family members and schoolmates who served in World War II, Vietnam, the gulf wars and Afghanistan. In just under an hour the work depicts episodes from a nameless protagonist’s lifetime involvement with military conflict, from boyhood sandbox skirmishes and first-person-shooter video games to the terror of actual battle and the anguished loss that comes in its wake.
Mr. 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.
Nursed through several earlier incarnations by a loyal producer, Beth Morrison, “Soldier Songs” had its formal premiere in a staging directed by Yuval Sharon, introduced in 2011 at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven and jointly mounted in New York by Pace Presents and Prototype, the ambitious new festival Ms. Morrison helped to found.
Mr. Little’s gifts for setting text comfortably and effectively, and for writing music informed by Minimalism and rock but slavishly indebted to neither, are evident throughout the briskly paced work. But the concerns he conveys in “Soldier Songs” are seldom comfortable or pleasant, and Mr. Sharon’s production detonates them in vivid, sometimes harrowing ways.
Nearly all the action is concentrated in a patch of center stage, a sandbox with a seesaw, hidden at times by fabric walls that rise and fall. Monitors strewed around the set flash video-game images and patriotic slogans. An overhead screen and bare lighting rigs frame the stage, at one point producing blinding flashes and deafening outbursts that convey precisely shock and awe.
As the Soldier, the sole vocalist apart from isolated shouts from the instrumentalists, Christopher Burchett marched, paced and caromed around the set, producing a robust baritone, a childish falsetto and a power-mad bark by turns. As a stage presence he was fearless; stripped to his underwear for a scene of rabid battle preparation, he evoked superheroic posturing and vulnerability simultaneously.
Zac Ballard, a child actor, was a haunting foil as the Boy, serving as the Soldier’s playmate and mirror. Upstage in plain view, Todd Reynolds conducted Newspeak, Mr. Little’s instrumental ensemble, in a performance that aptly balanced precision, nuance and impact.
In program notes distributed on Friday, Mr. Little — who wrote about mixing politics and art for The New York Times — claimed that “Soldier Songs” was not meant to convey a specific point or message. Maybe so, but Mr. Sharon’s confrontational staging emphatically underscored implicit antiwar sentiments. At once seductive and repulsive, the presentation provided further evidence of Mr. Little’s fast-rising stock as a vital theatrical creator.
“Soldier Songs” is repeated Wednesday through Friday at the Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University; (212)352-3101, prototypefestival.org.
(A version of this review appeared in print on January 15, 2013, on page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: Reflecting on War and Its Tentacles.)
Read the New York Times Music Review.
From the New Yorker:
The knockout première of “Dog Days” at Montclair’s Peak Performances series last fall made the young composer David T. Little into American opera’s newest star. To follow up, Morrison presents the New York stage première of this earlier, one-hour work, a rock-driven, multimedia one-man opera that follows a typical U.S. warrior from infancy to old age, with songs set to a libretto fashioned from interviews Little did with veterans of five conflicts. Christopher Burchett sings it; Todd Reynolds conducts the Newspeak ensemble. (Michael Schimmel Center, Pace University, 3 Spruce St. Jan. 16-18 at 7:30. For tickets and information about other festival shows, see prototypefestival.org.)