Playwright Heather Raffo leads a free reading of a libretto-in-progress at Georgetown University August 29. Photograph courtesy of Georgetown University Department of Performing Arts
New York-based playwright and actress Heather Raffo came to international attention a few years ago with her award-winning one-woman play Nine Parts of Desire. For her latest project, Raffo is writing a libretto for a new opera to be premiered at City Opera Vancouver next year. As part of Raffo’s ongoing residency at Georgetown’s Department of Performing Arts, a group of Georgetown students, faculty, and guest artists will join Raffo in a public reading of the current form of the new libretto. This reading will not include the opera’s music, which is still being completed by Vancouver-based composer Tobin Stokes.
Over the weekend, Raffo told The Washingtonian about how she came to be writing her first opera libretto. “It was a stroke of luck,” she says. “ Nine Parts was being performed in Vancouver, and the president of the board at City Opera Vancouver saw the show. She thought I might be a right fit for this libretto, and they had been looking for a writer. So my name got thrown into the mix. Around the time that my son was being born last November, I got a call that I got the job.” She did not meet the composer until the first workshop for the opera in Vancouver. As reported earlier this year, the Annenberg Foundation awarded a $250,000 commissioning grant to City Opera Vancouver, to bring the chamber opera to the stage.
The libretto’s story is drawn from the life of a US Marine Corps Sergeant named Christian Ellis, who fought at the Battle of Fallujah. A gunner on a Humvee, Ellis was injured by an IED explosion, and a year after returning from Iraq he began to suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “He came to New York for a week in January,” Raffo says. “We spent ten hours a day talking, talking about everything, but especially about his time serving in Fallujah in 2004, which is the time that the opera is set.” Raffo’s time at Georgetown, in collaboration with Arena Stage, has been crucial in bringing the work to fruition. Caitlin Cassidy, a senior at Georgetown last year, worked tirelessly as a research assistant, and Maya Roth, Director of Theater and Performance Studies at Georgetown, was a discerning dramaturge.
Nine Parts of Desire also dealt with the Iraq War, focusing on the experiences of Iraqi women during the American military intervention there. Was it difficult for Raffo to write instead about the experience of an American soldier in Iraq? “It has been an incredible gift for me to have an opportunity to explore a marine’s personal journey in the Iraq war as intimately as I did with Iraqi women,” Raffo says. “Christian’s experiences are full of the rich layers, human emotions, personal tragedies, and power of spirit that any story worth excavating is made of.” City Opera Vancouver board president Nora Kelly has said of the work to develop the opera, “Our goal is to share a deeper truth about humanity, told through music, and to put a human face to both sides of military conflict.”
How is it different writing lines to be sung rather than spoken? “One thinks more of rhythm,” Raffo says. “The imagery has to be condensed, and of course you want to use more vowels.” She will hear the music of the opera for the first time next month, when Act I goes into workshop in Vancouver. “I have written two endings to the libretto,” she adds, both of which will be read by the actors tonight. She hopes that the reading, and a Q&A session with the audience afterward, will help solidify the script and give some feedback on which of the two possible endings works best or is more inspiring. “In each ending a different character dies,” she says, not wanting to give too much away. “I think one ending tells a better ‘story’. The other will have far better musical possibilities. This is where the needs of the music may be slightly different than the needs of the story.” Raffo added that she is also going to float some ideas for a title for her new libretto at tonight’s event.
The public reading of Heather Raffo’s libretto will be given this evening, August 29, at 6 PM, at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center. Free.