Liz Frazer raises her hands and leads the singers in front of her into a vocal exercise.
They start raggedly and the Seattle Opera teaching artist immediately signals the piano player to stop, then directs the group again: “Let’s be a little more solid on that.”
A few minutes later, Frazer wraps up the exercise and tells her singers, “We went from a volunteer choir to an opera choir there, so I was happy to see that.”
The group is made up of a dozen or so veterans from Seattle, some of whom are recovering from homelessness and other trauma. They’re members of a chorus put together by local nonprofit organization Path with Art and are participating in Seattle Opera’s “The Falling and the Rising,” a chamber opera running Nov. 15-24.
The piece follows the inner journey of a soldier who’s been put in a medical coma following an attack. She travels through a dreamscape that includes encounters with fellow service members who share their experiences, with the audience serving as witness.
The opera, which will be performed with an 11-piece chamber orchestra at Seattle Opera’s Opera Center, was first envisioned by Staff Sgt. First Class Benjamin Hilgert of the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus. The Army band commissioned librettist Jerre Dye and composer Zach Redler to write the opera. They visited places like Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where they had access to harrowing stories few get to hear.
“These are themes that are real-life themes that everyone can connect with,” said Holly Jacobson, Path with Art executive director. “We tend to put art on a kind of pedestal. And so I really applaud the Opera. It’s right in line with our mission to collaborate in a way where we’re much more fluid as a community.”
Each performance will be followed by a discussion with community and service organizations highlighting the struggles faced by veterans, as well as opportunities to find help.
“The Falling and the Rising,” co-commissioned by Seattle Opera, has been performed a few times by other opera companies already. The Seattle production will feature five professional singers handling the bulk of the music. Frazer’s chorus will play a key role toward the end of the production in a powerful moment.
“So they join the professionals and everybody cries because it’s super cool,” said Lesley Chapin Wyckoff, president-elect of the Seattle Opera board of directors.
It’s the first time an amateur chorus of veterans has been used to perform the composition and the partnership comes as both the Opera and Path with Art are seeking to increase their engagement with the community.
The production continues Seattle Opera’s trend of using its chamber operas to tell more inclusive stories. Previous productions have centered around a transgender woman’s journey, a family impacted by Japanese American incarceration and a queer love story.
The production also is helping the Opera showcase its new facility at Seattle Center that houses the Opera’s administrative offices and rehearsal spaces.
“The building was built with every single decision made with an eye toward the community, for making this a home for the community, a place of belonging for the community,” Chapin Wyckoff said. “Because opera can be off-putting. And so we really looked for opportunities to make this feel like a place where people could arrive and see beautiful, passionate stories about people that look like them.”
While the triumphs of military life are often displayed on television news and in pages of history books for all to see, the tragedies are often hidden from view. Engaging the military community can be difficult, Jacobson has learned through her work at Path with Art.
The nonprofit seeks to transform the lives of those recovering from homelessness, addiction and other trauma through creative engagement, and serves about 800 local residents. Veterans make up a very small part of that number, especially when compared to the density of former military members at other veteran-oriented social-services centers.
“I was just wondering why that was,” Jacobson said. “And one of the things I learned was that veterans really like the idea of being around other veterans.”
Path with Art had plans to launch veteran-oriented programming in 2020, but Jacobson found out about “The Falling and the Rising” and turned to Mertiss Thompson and Melodie Clarke, who are both veterans and members of the Path with Art choir.
The veterans chorus put together for “The Falling and the Rising” serves as both a significant step and a metaphor for Path with Art and the participants. Both signing on with the military and joining an amateur chorus in a professional production are leaps of faith, though on different ends of the difficulty spectrum.
“You create that bond, you know,” Thompson said. “You sign your name on the dotted line and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Everybody, every veteran does that. They don’t know if they’re coming back home.”
Thompson, raised in Memphis, said he joined the Navy at 17 and spent most of his stint playing baseball in California and writing for a military newspaper.
“I was fortunate to be able to do what I did in the Navy,” he said. “Which is why I give back to the VA now, because I see kids come back with no arms, no legs and whatever.”
Part of the idea behind the composition is that veterans sharing their stories with others can aid the healing process. Clarke says she joined the Army to escape an abusive situation, and years later turned to veterans groups for help again when trapped in a bad relationship.
She has learned something about the healing power of art through time spent in other Path with Art programs — through which she’s found a passion for acting, and especially Shakespeare — and believes the same is true of participating in the new production.
“I tell people about them all the time and about their programs,” Clarke said. “They have supported me in my time of need. And so I like to spread that to other people so that they can come and get the help they need. My counselor said that since I’ve been doing things with Path with Art, the showcases and the plays and the stage acting, that my mental health has improved and my confidence is improved and he has told me to continue doing it as part of my treatment.”
Clarke turned to Jacobson.
“So my counselor at my mental-health program approves of you heartily,” Clarke said.
“We need prescriptions for art,” Jacobson said with a smile.
“The Falling and the Rising,” a chamber opera with music by Zach Redler and libretto by Jerre Dye. Nov. 15-24; Seattle Opera, Tagney Jones Hall at the Opera Center, 363 Mercer St., Seattle; $35-$45; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org