THE LONG WALK, a new opera by composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, is based on Brian Castner’s critically acclaimed book of the same name, which describes a soldier’s return from Iraq where he served as an officer in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit and his battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as he tries to reintegrate himself back into his family life upon his return from the war.
“From the very first page of Brian Castner’s The Long Walk, the book’s directness and immediacy grabs you by the throat and pulls you into its harrowing world,” explain Jeremy and Stephanie. “We were moved by the candor of Brian’s voice, the intense camaraderie of the EOD unit, the off-kilter sense of alienation at home, and so much more. The devastating suspense inherent in Brian’s story held us in its thrall. We are thrilled that Brian has granted us the rights to adapt his story, and that ALT is commissioning this opera from us, and providing us with the resources to develop this work.
“A soldier comes home and must adapt to a world that is forever changed. This is a timeless story, though the context continues to change. From Homer’s The Odyssey to Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage to Auden’s poetry of shell shock to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to the current wave of writing coming out right now, it is not just timeless; it is urgent, necessary, wholly of the present moment. Those who have survived their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home, or they are coming home, or they will be coming home one day in the near or distant future, at which point there will almost certainly be another war to contend with somewhere else.
“Over twenty percent of those returning will carry with them the marks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We as a country are in the process of absorbing a huge influx of veterans who will have no choice but to grapple with their combat experiences for years to come. The relentlessness of the statistics—and the epidemic of suicide that accompanies them—is sobering, to say the least. How can we keep sending these young men and women off to war, knowing that so many of them will return afflicted? How can we live with ourselves knowing that we let them go? How do we care for them and support them in their struggle? How do we as a culture take responsibility?
“Brian’s book makes the paradox of the return and the near impossibility of a smooth reintegration come alive for us. He transports us there—to Iraq—and back, to a home world laced with an agonizing disquiet and charged with shattered and shattering memories. He conjures the inanities of the mundane civilian world—the airport, with all its fast food chains and carpeting, the sense of shock and dislocation—in vivid detail. We feel for his endless searching, the need to quiet the Crazy. We are moved by how truthful Brian is with himself and with us: his journey from a man with a “naïve” love of the idea of battle to a man whose love for all that once gave him joy has evaporated; the almost childlike bliss he discovers in the art of defusing bombs; his enthusiasm for the science and pragmatism and craft and in-depth knowledge of this specialty.
“Journalist Christopher Hayes writes, “We have a society that on the one hand has become comfortable with war and on the other hand wants to distance itself from it as much as possible, to outsource it to contractors, to robots and to the 2.3 million volunteer men and women who have been asked to serve for longer durations than at any time in recent history.” With the exception of September 11 and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, none of the major military conflicts of the last hundred years have taken place on American soil. These days, war is “out there,” long ago and far away, performed by and inflicted on other people. We are unprecedentedly insulated from it, and the ever-increasing hardship and losses are borne by fewer and fewer volunteers and their families. But we both feel The Long Walk brings it all beautifully and terrifyingly close to home.
“But, why turn this book into an opera? One quality that is intrinsic to opera is its relationship to time. Opera allows for extended moments of emotional expansion. The Long Walk is layered with complicated and conflicting emotional states as well as pierced through with moments of intense emotional clarity. Music, and the human voice in particular, are uniquely able to access and communicate deep emotion, to dramatize the inner life of a character. This is a piece about a man besieged by memory. The drama of Brian’s story is almost entirely internal. The book is not so much about the events themselves as about the process of dealing with what happened. Even with the roller-coaster ride of those edge-of-one’s seat memory moments sited in Iraq, The Long Walk is meditative in form. The central character makes a gradual, almost imperceptible journey—with a handful of crystalline revelations along the way — towards a kind of redemption. It is a journey that feels inherently musical. The book is full of refrains and motifs. Music is a motivic medium that functions largely by theme and variation. The book’s refrains and recurring images seem to function as music does. They are used repeatedly, in different contexts, until they begin to take on new meanings. Until they begin to transform.”
THE LONG WALK is being commissioned by ALT as part of the company’s initiative to develop works that expand the traditional audience base for opera while confronting critical contemporary issues. The idea for THE LONG WALK was brought to ALT by Jeremy and Stephanie in the summer of 2012. While we have seen many contemporary operas that deal with war, and there is, of course, a long history of theatrical works drawn from the narrative of a soldier returning from war, Brian’s book struck all of us as being not only quite different from other memoirs and stories of war, but material that could uniquely benefit from being realized through opera.
Jeremy and Stephanie are developing the piece as a chamber opera, with an intriguing instrumental ensemble of 15 players that combines traditional acoustic instruments with electric guitars, but the voices in the opera will remain unamplified. At ALT, we are particularly interested in championing the work of composers who embrace the expressive power of the unamplified voice. While some of the work we have developed involves amplified singing, we were intrigued by the expressive potential of this story as told through the musical resources Jeremy and Stephanie have proposed to us. We believe THE LONG WALK has the potential to be an important and highly relevant addition to the operatic repertoire. The performing forces for which it is being written are modest, and the subject matter is not only topical and timeless, but vitally important as part of our discourse on the world we live in today.