- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2018

Artillery and arias may seem like an unlikely mix, but the stories of active-duty soldiers and U.S. Army veterans will form the libretto for “The Falling and The Rising,” an opera making its world premiere Friday on the campus of Texas Christian University.

The brainchild of Staff Sgt. Ben Hilgert, an accomplished veteran of the opera stage before joining the Army, and Chicago writer and director Jerre Dye, the unusual production’s plot is based on real soldiers’ stories, gathered from more than 30 interviews with wounded service members at Bethesda’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland and from active-duty soldiers at the Washington region’s Fort Myer and Fort Meade. Mr. Dye wrote the libretto, and frequent collaborator Zach Redler composed the score.

Moved by the dedication and sacrifices of those he met, Mr. Dye said, he tried to match the quality of the production with a determination to do right by the stories he heard.


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“It was completely thrilling,” Mr. Dye recalled of his meetings with the soldiers and veterans. “You walk into those rooms with complete humility.”



The opera’s five-member cast — all Army soldiers — will dramatize the story of a comatose Army soldier after she is wounded by a roadside bomb. Throughout the performance, the audience follows the thoughts, feelings and emotions running through the wounded soldier’s mind — punctuated by dreamlike encounters with other service members during her convalescence.

In an interview, Mr. Dye acknowledged that he had not had much exposure to the stories and sacrifices of those who serve in the U.S. armed forces. The opera, he hopes, will help narrow the larger disconnect between the American civilian population and the small percentage of those who serve.

“The idea is to build a bridge between the civilian population and the military population,” Mr. Dye said. “When I talk about the [opera], the word ‘sacrifice’ gets thrown around a lot. It is a beautiful opportunity to see what that word really means.”

Sgt. Hilgert took an unequally unlikely path to the stage at Texas Christian.

An accomplished freelance opera singer who had performed across the United States and Europe, Sgt. Hilgert thought he had found a life and a career in music. But that all changed when a close friend joined the Army.

His friend’s enlistment “planted a thought in my head,” he said. Even as his singing career continued to flourish, the thought never left. Performing on the world’s opera stages “was not enough for me,” he said, and he enlisted in the Army eight years ago.

“In joining the military, I found what I was looking for,” Staff Sgt. Hilgert said, “something that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Now a tenor with the Army Field Band’s Concert Band and Soldiers’ Chorus, Staff Sgt. Hilgert said collaborating on an opera about the U.S. Army and his fellow soldiers was a way of combining his two life passions. The interviews with wounded warriors and fellow soldiers only deepened his appreciation for the call to put on a uniform and serve.

“It changed the way I looked at my job,” the staff sergeant said. “It changed the way I looked at my life. These incredible stories of resilience and sacrifice — this was special.”

The staff sergeant is sharing producing chores for “The Falling and The Rising” with American opera producer Darren Woods, artistic director of Seagle Music Colony. Tyson Deaton will conduct for the world premiere.

Texas Christian and four other companies — the Seattle Opera, San Diego Opera, Arizona Opera and Opera Memphis — agreed to co-commission the piece. After opening in Fort Worth, the opera has scheduled performances at the other sponsors’ venues.

Going to the source

Mr. Dye, a Mississippi native, actor and writer, is no stranger to the hard work and research it takes to put on a successful operatic production, but he said he was nervous before stepping into the room at Walter Reed for the first interviews for his project.

He found himself enthralled with the story of the very first wounded soldier he met.

“There was nothing else. Just this. What was right in front of me,” he said of that interview. It would be a scenario Mr. Dye and Staff Sgt. Hilgert would reenact time and time again, during multiple interviews with service members.

“We were going to go to the source,” Staff Sgt. Hilgert said. “Get access to real soldiers and talk to them.”

The stories compiled during those interviews coalesced into the main storylines that will be portrayed on stage by the cast — Sgts. 1st Class Daniel Erbe and Betsy Garcia and Staff Sgts. Ian Bowling, Rachel Farber and Kennan McCarter.

While the opera is written and performed as an ensemble, the production can also be broken down into single, shorter vignettes that can be performed at smaller venues, Mr. Dye said. That so-called “multi-mission capability” of the opera should not take away from the performance’s impression on the audience, he noted.

While the opera was motivated in large part by a desire to shed light on the physical and emotional sacrifices service members accept in times of war and peace, the message of the production is much larger, said Staff Sgt. Hilgert.

The performance is “more about the professionalism of the American soldier,” he said. “I love opera and its power to move us. … It is really a fantastic way to tell stories. Music is the international language.”

The staff sergeant proposed the idea of commissioning an Army opera in 2015, but said the idea had been gestating for a long time, he said.

“The inspiration started long before I joined the Army. … It was baked into who I was,” he said. One day, he recalled, Staff Sgt. Hilgert found himself in the offices of Opera America with Col. Jim Keene, commander of the U.S. Army Band, discussing how to turn that inspiration into reality.

“The door was wide open for me to step into. The opera world was ripe for this,” Staff Sgt. Hilgert said. “The doors kind of opened and I just walked right in.”

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