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Grammys 2022: Alumnus shows opera’s on-screen potential in film adaptation of ‘Soldier Songs’

(Nathan Koketsu/Daily Bruin)

By Steven Zhao

March 28, 2022 2:12 p.m.

This post was updated March 30 at 10:53 p.m.

Opera marches to a new field of possibilities in “Soldier Songs.”

James Darrah, an alumnus and lecturer in the School of Theater, Film and Television and the Herb Alpert School of Music, is known for his incorporation of film into operatic work. Beginning in 2020, Darrah worked with Opera Philadelphia on its film adaptation of “Soldier Songs,” which has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Opera Recording category. Opera Philadelphia had planned to perform the piece, originally composed by David T. Little in 2006, in a live setting. But as the pandemic hit, the decision was made to pivot to a recorded medium, Darrah said.

“I had proposed to Philadelphia before the pandemic that I felt like the next frontier for opera was film … and they were one of the companies that really looked at (it and) got interested,” Darrah said.

“Soldier Songs” addresses the effect that war has on its constituents, Little said. Growing up, Little said he underestimated the extent of his ties to the military, as he had family members who had participated in multiple periods of war. With this realization came the desire to understand the often traumatizing experiences of veterans and bring awareness to their voices, he said. After interviewing various veterans, many of whom were people he was close with, Little said he built “Soldier Songs” out of the reflections of their experience.

I realized I needed to talk to them and have a conversation about what their experience was,” Little said. “It was impossible for me to understand what they had experienced in combat.”

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The composition explores war and its aftermath through three stages reflecting a soldier’s life, Darrah said, starting with childhood flashbacks of playing with toy soldiers and shooting games. Moreover, one specific part that addressed the psychological impact of war on veterans was the recurring image of toast, Darrah said. This harmonized with Little’s repetition of motifs in the music, he said, and was set up as a visual cue for a point in the film when the toast burns in the toaster, creating smoke that triggers the soldier’s PTSD. Seeing the smoke, the soldier begins to hallucinate that everything is on fire, Darrah said.

Due to the nature of “Soldier Songs” as both an opera and film piece, the project had to undergo a two-pronged recording process, Darrah said. The music was both prerecorded separately with the orchestra from Opera Philadelphia and performed live on set with singer and director Johnathan McCullough. As one of the producers and the screenwriter for the project, Darrah said he was more involved with the singing and film sides, making creative decisions regarding the production of the soundtrack and the cinematography. These decisions included the cyclical use of drums in the opening and ending parts of the piece and where to employ silence.

In particular, the decision to record the singing on set differs from the more pristine and disconnected quality of the recorded audio found in most movies and music videos, Darrah said. An important part of the process was keeping the nature of the sound true to whatever environment the audience members find themselves in, he said.

“The vocal quality (of live singing) seems very present and real,” Darrah said. “Opera on film benefits from as much live singing as possible, which doesn’t always mean they have to sing on screen, in my mind.

Another consideration of note is that incorporating live singing as part of the soundtrack to an operatic film does not necessarily mean there has to be singing on the screen, as Darrah said the medium has plenty of artistic freedom and new possibilities. David Devan, the general director and president of Opera Philadelphia, said film allows for an exploration of dimensions that singers portray in their characters surpassing that of just the produced sound, such as listening to a soprano sing while watching her cry silently on screen.

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Since “Soldier Songs” occupies an intersection of film and opera, Darrah said there were distinct necessities in the creation process: Music operates on a score of dictated time while film requires a screenplay. He said some scores are very meticulous in regard to the intended musical end product, and shooting the scenes of a film requires more than just a score.

“That was a surprise for a lot of the opera folks, like, ‘Oh, we actually need this other document, and then we have to have somebody that knows how to correlate those two things constantly,'” Darrah said.You’re on page four of the screenplay, but you’re on page 16 of the score. How do you make sure that those things line up?”

Working on “Soldier Songs” has affirmed Darrah’s belief that opera can enter the film space in a meaningful manner, he said. In doing so, he said opera can start to bring people from various disciplines and facilitate work with collaborators who do not traditionally work in the field while also creating more avenues for those currently in opera to showcase their talents.

“Opera was invented to be the art form that combined all the arts,” Darrah said. “I feel like in the last 50 years, it’s avoided cinema and TV. It’s avoided our most dominant art forms.”

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