Darren Woods, artistic director of the Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, which trains opera singers, is always on the lookout for new opera possibilities. So when Staff Sgt. Ben Hilgert, who sings with the Soldiers Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band and had taken a master class with Woods, contacted him about a year ago with an idea, Woods was all ears.
“He had this idea of wanting to interview veterans about their experiences and maybe do a five- or 10-minute piece,” Woods said. “I thought it could be a bigger piece than that.”
Composer Zach Redler and librettist Jerre Dye were soon on board, and with suggestions from Hilgert they interviewed up to 25 returning soldiers at Walter Reed National Medical Center and Fort Meade. The result is “The Falling and the Rising,” which will have state premieres over the next two weeks in various local venues. The opera, which is a co-commission among the Seagle Colony and various foundations, had its world premiere in April at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, with cast from the Army’s Soldiers Chorus.
Working from interviews was not new for Dye, as he has a long history in musical theater, opera and as a playwright, but walking into a roomful of soldiers with a battery of questions was a first for him and Redler.
“Entering their world was extraordinary,” Dye said. “The time varied with each soldier. Some were done in person and some over the phone. All were eager to talk and were generous with their time. It took a few months to do.”
“We got fantastic people,” Redler said. “I was affected by the interviews.”
The commission stipulated the show had to be extremely nimble, intimate, flexible, low-budget and one act, so Dye and Redler decided five characters would be composites of the soldiers’ interviews. Seagle Colony alumni are the cast.
“We plucked out similar themes and picked out actual words that many repeated, and used those for lyrics. The opera would be about service and sacrifice, and we’d try to paint the mood of the scene,” Dye said.
While Dye was used to writing full-length operas — he has three previews currently in the works with national companies — Redler had never written an opera, let alone a 70-minute orchestra score, but he did have experience in musical theater.
“I wanted to tell the story of everywhere America, so the score is tonal, has bluegrass, some traditional romanticism like Verdi or Wagner, and even some Billy Joel, Sondheim and Poulenc,” Redler said.
He’d also worked on shorter pieces with Dye for Opera Memphis. Their collaboration was “a magical dance” from the beginning, Dye said.
“I built an outline, sent it to Zach and Ben, made some adjustments, have it read, get more feedback, more drafts, then Zach built the music to the words,” Dye said. “It was the chicken-before-the-egg libretto.”
Last summer, the new opera had a workshop at Seagle and “the audience was blown away,” Woods said. “It’s an inspirational story of service, sacrifice and connection amidst uncertainty … to honor the indomitable spirit of our military veterans and to shed light on the power of their often overlooked stories. I’m hoping to tour it across the country. ”
The experience has been memorable for Dye and Redler.
“It’s been a miraculous journey,” Dye said. “The soldiers have come to performances and it’s been joyful.”
“It’s the longest piece I’ve ever written,” Redler said. “It’s the height of my career.”
‘The Falling and the Rising’
Friday: 7:30 p.m., Charles
R. Wood Theater, 207 Glen St., Glens Falls
Saturday: 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Hubbard Hall, 25 E. Main St., Cambridge
Sunday: 3 p.m., Tannery Pond Community Center,
228 Main St., North Creek
Oct. 6: 7:30 p.m., Strand Center for the Arts, 23 Brinkerhoff St., Plattsburgh
HOW MUCH: varied
MORE INFO: 518-532-7875;
All veterans and active military members receive free admission to “The Falling and the Rising.”