Why create an operatic story about a war veteran?
Each and every day, we are learning new horrors of the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in general and those that afflict combat veterans in particular. Even as we explore the depths of this devastating condition and its impact on loved ones and society at large, we are simultaneously, as a nation, asking our young men and women to undergo combat experiences that will generate new victims of PTSD daily. Quite apart from the social, moral, and political controversies of war, we view the rising incidence of PTSD as a major psychological, spiritual, medical, and social epidemic facing our nation and our world.
Do you have personal experience as war veterans?
No. Neither the composer, Ethan Gans-Morse, nor the librettist, Tiziana DellaRovere, has had direct personal experience of combat, although Tiziana grew up amidst the ravages of postwar Italy and suffered at the hands of her father, a decorated general whose behaviors would today be classified as those of PTSD. However, it is important to emphasize that the successful treatment of PTSD depends not only on the treatment and willpower of each afflicted veteran, but also on the response of the local community and on the attitudes of the entire nation toward its wounded soldiers. Histories and folklore of nearly all cultures around the globe, particularly the warrior cultures of the Native Americans, Celts, and West Africans, emphasize the importance of The Return, that pivotal moment when a warrior comes home from battle and is received by family, tribe, and nation. Historically, The Return was marked by greatly-anticipated rituals, in which the warrior’s story was told in epic verse, song, dance, and theater, and the warrior’s community gathered to shower the warrior with appreciation and honor. This relationship between the combatant and his or her community, which was invariably grateful for the sacrifices and protection afforded by its warriors, enabled the entire tribe or nation to assume the burden of war, to collectively shoulder the pain of its many traumas, to validate the sacrifices of its soldiers, and to give the warrior a new identity as a guardian and protector during peace times.
What can civilians do to help veterans?
We believe that we, as a nation, have failed in our duties to our soldiers, and that this failure has wrought devastating consequences on our vets and on our country as a whole. By failing to provide our soldiers with an honorable forum in which to gather and welcome our soldiers back into their larger family, that is the nation that elected to send them to war, we have denied them the completion of their transformation into honored warriors and guardians, leaving them alone to deal with the collective guilt and shame that we refuse to deal with in our public discourse and culture. As a result, vets often feel like social pariahs because they become living reminders of the bitter realities of war that our larger society is unable to cope with.
The Canticle of the Black Madonna is our great effort, as artists, to create a forum for both military and civilians audiences to come together and experience the healing of the warrior archetype through the love of the Universal Mother, who welcomes her son home by restoring within him his shattered sense of his own goodness.
How can the arts have an effect on real-world problems?
We consider the arts to be one of the most powerful ways to create vivid, human experiences and to bring about tangible, lasting healing because the arts circumvent our conscious, linear minds and speak directly to the collective archetypes that motivate us. When you watch a movie about a hero, whether it is a fictional character such as Luke Skywalker, a mythical figure such as Hercules, or a historical person such as Ghandi, the sense of excitement, inspiration, and power that such an experience evokes within you is more than entertainment: it is the activation of that warrior archetype within you, the call to act for the greater good of humanity, even at the greatest expenses of hardship, failure, pain, and overwhelming obstacles.
The renowned scholar Joseph Campbell established that in their healthiest forms, these archetypes motivate our greatest acts of human strength, creativity, and compassion; however, these archetypes can become wounded, neglected, and distorted. When a culture outgrows its archetypes, fails to keep them modern, relevant, fresh, and vibrant, then the culture suffers an immense collective wound. In the case of modern warfare, we are enthralled with an ancient heroic archetype that can no longer be achieved through the mechanized, scorched-earth wars we suffer from today. Children grow up with toy guns, soldiers, and video games that give them a sense of strength, power, and importance. But the reality is that modern war—unlike the tribal or mythical wars of centuries long-gone—is fought thousands of miles away from home, employs tens of thousands of soldiers over massive theaters of combat, and relies of high-tech weapons that are often operated over long distances and kill soldiers, civilians, and the local ecology with equal disinterest.
What do you believe to be the role of the artist in society?
The role of the artist, like the protective role of the warrior, has become lost and confused over the centuries. Only the artist, the musician, the storyteller, the painter, the sculptor, and today, the filmmaker, can speaker directly to and from the wounded collective archetypes of our modern world in a way that realigns us as one family, connected both in victory and tragedy, interdependent upon each other and our natural world, and deserving of honor for the contributions each one of us offers.