Aug. 1, 2012 at 9:14 AM ET
Can the stirring sounds of opera reach out to a young generation of veterans dealing with the pain of post-traumatic stress disorder? That's what Marine and Iraq War vet Christian Ellis and Iraqi American playwright Heather Raffo are hoping.
Along with composer Tobin Stokes, Ellis and Raffo worked to set Ellis' wartime experiences to music, creating "Fallujah," the first-ever opera written about the Iraq War.
But it wasn't easy for Raffo and Ellis to come together to work on the project. Ellis said that while it's hard for him to admit he held prejudice against those of Iraqi descent, those feelings were there.
"It took a lot for me to actually go meet (Raffo), and I'm glad I did," he told NBC News.
And Raffo, whose earlier one-woman play, "9 Parts of Desire" focuses on Iraqi women, had her own worries. After a lifetime of hearing stories from her father's family in Baghdad, she says she wasn't sure she was ready to "fully take on (the U.S. military's) story and to let it live in me as humanly as the Iraqi side."
That all changed within minutes of their meeting. "The moment I walked into (Raffo's) apartment ... she gave me a hug and (our connection) was like -- instant," Ellis said.
Raffo agrees. "I might have been most moved and surprised by the level of clarity, honesty, and ulimately vulnerability with which he spoke," she says. "I mean, Marines are really strong people, but I noticed how emotionally strong and fragile Christian is. He was an absolute open book."
He had some heavy stories to share. A former machine gunner, Ellis was in one of the first units to invade Fallujah in 2004, fighting in two of the bloodiest battles U.S. forces saw there. He's open about the four suicide attempts he made after his return home, and about the 33 friends he lost, some to battle, some to suicide. He's marked himself with intricate arm and chest tattoos that carry 33 drops of red to remember those friends, an idea inspired by the red "blood stripe" Marines wear on the trousers of their dress blues.
Ellis had created a written story outlining some of his experiences in Iraq, and with Raffo's help, the two set about turning that into an opera. "Fallujah" begins with a Marine named Phillip in the suicide ward of a VA hospital, trying to decide if he will allow his mother in to see him.
When the two met, Raffo had just given birth to her second child, so motherly emotions were flowing freely on many levels.
"Pairing these kind of in-depth conversations with mother-son relationships while I had just given birth to a son was really part of our bonding and coming together," she said. "We were really relating as a mother with a young man."
A duet between two grieving mothers, one American, one Iraqi, is a central part of the production. Ellis is quick to point out that Phillip's mother in the opera is not based on his own mother, and mom Michelle Ellis says she understands.
"He told me, 'Mom, it's not you, it's a character that I've created'," Michelle Ellis said. "He has created a story, and I think that the power of it is real."
Michelle Ellis remembers her son's fascination with operatic music going way back, noting with a laugh that he would sing the famous "Figaro, Figaro" section of "The Barber of Seville" opera in the shower.
"He loved music ever since he was such a little kid," she said. "He's got a real big heart, and I'm hoping that will come out in the opera."
From all accounts, it has. The opera doesn't shy away from the brutality of battle, flashing back between Phillip's present-day struggle and what Raffo calls "daymares," flashbacks to the war. In one scene, Phillip watches his best friend die, and another involves a horrible event involving a young Iraqi boy he's befriended. Both events are drawn from Ellis' own war experiences.
Ellis himself is still living with the traumas he experienced in the war. His transition home was difficult, and it took some time before a friend who worked with veterans helped him realize he was suffering from PTSD. Even now, suicidal thoughts still come and go. And he's struggling to find work in a world that he notes seems unfriendly to all unemployed people, but especially to veterans. He's sent out 200 resumes and received only two calls about work.
"It's hard to put on a resume, I've been a machine gunner, I've been an instructor, I've been a leader," he says. "I know how to manage people, but I really don't have the retail experience you seem to require."
City Opera Vancouver developed "Fallujah" with funds from Explore.org, which is part of the Annenberg Foundation. It's the rare opera that has almost the equivalent of a movie trailer -- clips from a May final workshop are available to watch online.
Artistic director Charles Barber said despite its military theme, the opera is accessible to all. "I've never been on a battlefield in my life," Barber said. "You don't have to have been there with an AK-47 to know what it means."
Composer Tobin Stokes worked to make each character's musical language fit his background and generation, even incorporating the sounds of an oud, a traditional Middle Eastern stringed instrument.
"We have something here that tells a story, yes, but it digs deeper and touches the heart of the problems war leaves behind, and I know it can start dialogues and healing," Stokes said. "I've seen it happening already."
But the opera has yet to find a company and theater willing to produce it. Raffo and Ellis would like to see "Fallujah" land in Washington, D.C., perhaps at the Kennedy Center.
Such a location, Raffo notes, would allow the opera to be seen by employees of the State Department, Pentagon and Iraqi Embassy, as well as regular members of the military and civilians.
"That makes for a conversation, and that is exactly what we want to happen," Raffo said.
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