Midway through The Canticle of the Black Madonna, a war veteran named Adam curls into the fetal position. Discordant, frenetic music plays as Adam relives the deaths of his fellow soldiers in a grenade attack in Afghanistan. Over and over, he poses the same question: “Why them and not me?”
Opera and the battlefield have long been good bedfellows, perhaps because the latter packs an inherent dramatic punch. From Bellini’s I Puritani, set during the English Civil War in the 1640s, to Glinka’s masterpiece of Russian propaganda, A Life for the Tsar, to Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, the art form has embraced the glamour and glory of war.
In The Canticle of the Black Madonna, a new opera debuting this weekend at the Newmark Theatre, nothing is that simple. The show, by librettist Tiziana DellaRovere and composer Ethan Gans-Morse, concerns itself not with sentimental acts of heroism but with conflict’s harrowing aftermath. It centers on Adam, a soldier who returns from the Middle East only to find his father’s Louisiana oyster farm decimated by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Though outwardly fine, Adam’s violent outbursts and hallucinations reveal a man tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder, which, according to recent studies, is now responsible for more than 22 American combat veteran suicides every day.
“One thing opera does incredibly well is open a window into a character’s subconscious,” Gans-Morse says. “Consider that PTSD is a silent killer. People develop a response to trauma that, when the trauma is removed, doesn’t work anymore. Their inner world doesn’t match their outer world. That’s a very difficult thing to show in other art forms, but it’s what opera was made for.”
Adam, consumed by survivor’s guilt, has trouble connecting with his pregnant wife and stateside life. That’s where the Black Madonna, a dark-skinned virgin figure from medieval sculpture and iconography, comes in. According to DellaRovere, she represents the healing power of feminine love, and serves as the link between Adam’s story of psychological torture and the more visible wounds greed and industry have inflicted on our planet.
“The Black Madonna is of the earth,” DellaRovere says. “She’s not the celestial Madonna, blue and transcendent and out of reach. She’s here with us in the trenches of human life. She brings us the comfort, compassion and unconditional love we need to move forward.”
DellaRovere was interested in PTSD due to her background in clinical psychology. A native of Milan, she’s also an accomplished painter and poet and an ordained priest. While writing Canticle, she uncovered a family secret: Her father, a World War II Air Force veteran, was mostly likely afflicted with the disorder. “Back then no one really knew what PTSD was,” she says. “All we knew was that my very loving, caring father would sometimes without warning get angry and be on the verge of violence. Ten years after his death, I feel like I finally understand him.”
DellaRovere and Gans-Morse have a long-standing professional partnership and co-founded Phoenix, Ore.-based Anima Mundi Productions, a nonprofit arts organization with a focus on social change. Gans-Morse, a lover of Renaissance and Baroque music, composed Canticle with a very particular goal in mind. Adam (Michael Mayes) and his wife (Lindsey Cafferky) sing in a contemporary style. The music that accompanies them is likewise modern. The Black Madonna (Gwendolyn Brown), on the other hand, works in styles dating back hundreds of years—hers is an ancient voice.
“At the beginning, these styles are very much in conflict,” Gans-Morse says, “but over two hours, they meld. The effect is to communicate the healing the characters experience through music.”
During its four years in development, the opera has become a form of outreach. Real-life veterans join the 24-voice chorus. They also worked in lighting and set construction. On Thursday, Sept. 4, military personnel and their families are invited to see Canticle for free. Representatives from military-support service organizations will be on hand that night. Three days later at TaborSpace on Southeast Belmont Street, DellaRovere, with local combat veterans and psychologists, will hold a panel discussion on the opera and issues facing returning soldiers.
“The best feedback by far has come from veterans who came to the show in Eugene when we were workshopping it and told me they’d been considering suicide, but then saw Adam and Mara’s story and changed their minds,” DellaRovere says. “If I can save one life, these four years of bringing this project to fruition will be worth it.”
SEE IT: The Canticle of the Black Madonna is at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 800-273-1530. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, Sept. 5-6. $40-$84.