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Music

Pittsburgh Opera tackles war and its aftermath

| Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Former explosive ordnance disposal officer and veteran of the Iraq War Brian Castner is portrayed by Pittsburgh Opera resident artist Ben Taylor.
David Bachman Photography
Former explosive ordnance disposal officer and veteran of the Iraq War Brian Castner is portrayed by Pittsburgh Opera resident artist Ben Taylor.

Short television advertisements encouraging us to help wounded veterans do tug at our heartstrings, but understanding and honoring their sacrifice deserves more than 60 seconds of attention.

Opera's potential to convey both emotion and more complex layers of experience was applied to the story of one American wounded warrior in the recent opera “The Long Walk,” which was first performed in July 2015 and is coming to Pittsburgh Opera starting this weekend. It is based on the autobiographical book “The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows” by Brian Castner, who was an officer in an explosive ordnance unit in Iraq.

Audience rallies

“It's a real emotional pull for the audience to rally behind Brian,” the protagonist, says Benjamin Taylor who will portray him. Many in Taylor's family have served in the military, all branches and going back generations, and even he feels his understanding of what they went through has deepened from learning this role.

“Going through the process of someone finding themselves again isn't an unfamiliar story, but I like the twists with which this story is told,” he says. Starring in the opera is a nice break for the young baritone, who is a first-year resident artist with the company.

Book inspring

Pittsburgh Opera will present Beck's “The Long Walk” Jan. 20 to Jan. 28 at Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts school.

The composer and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann found Castner's book inspiring and chose it out of ten they were considering for their collaboration.

“I got caught up immediately when I read it and thought it would make a great opera,” says Fleischmann. “It's very exciting and fragmented. There are many refrains. It's almost structured like music. You feel like you have a friend in this piece. His struggle was incredibly compelling.”

Beck and Fleischmann read his book many times and found making a large chart helped them keep track of “where things come back, which images are in which part and how time works,” she said. Fleischmann also visited the Castner family for several days at their home in Buffalo, N.Y. While Castner had kept his wife Jessie and his children on the periphery of his book, Beck and Fleishmann knew they would have a larger role in the opera.

“Our goal was to shape a dramatic work out of all those fragments, finding a way through, a journey for the audience and Brian and his family, that had a dramatic arc,” says the librettist.

The two-act opera will last just over two hours with intermission.

Title has two meanings

Conductor Glenn Lewis says “The Long Walk” is particularly effective at conveying the overlapping realities of Brian's life. Even the title has two meanings — the lonely walk in a protective suit to disarm the bomb, but also the struggle to reintegrate back into one's own life. Flashbacks to Iraq occur at a family dinner, a birthday party or a session in a psychiatrist's office.

“The word eclectic doesn't even to begin to summarize the variety and range of Beck's music,” says Lewis. “People may wonder, if he's American, is he going to sound like Bernstein or Barber or Copland. It's none of that. It's his own collection of styles. Some of the music is quite tonal. There are real arias, quite beautiful ones. But there is also some very raucous and dissonant music that expresses what the central character calls his ‘Crazy' depicted in the orchestra.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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