The first time Brian Castner saw his story performed, he fell apart.
“I couldn’t watch,” he said. “I put my head down ... and then went outside and smoked half a pack of cigarettes — and I’d quit smoking years before.”
The Iraq War veteran is the critically acclaimed author of “The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows,” a book about the struggles Castner faced surviving the war as a bomb detonator, then finding out who he was once he made it home.
And now his story is being performed on stage — as an opera.
The show will make its world premiere in July at Opera Saratoga.
A war story might seem like unlikely fodder for an opera, but Lawrence Edelson, artistic and general director of Opera Saratoga, points out that veterans’ struggle when they return home is a timeless issue.
“People think of opera as antique, foreign, old-fashioned, and here we have a story that is absolutely of today, told through music,” Edelson said.
Modern opera isn’t obese actors in stodgy wigs singing in Italian. The genre has evolved, Edelson said. “An opera company has an obligation to perform contemporary work, or we become a museum piece.”
Staging a story that appeals to a diverse audience is one way to stay relevant.
So while writing “The Long Walk” was a deeply personal journey for Castner, in creating the opera, composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann broadened the story to focus on relationships and emotion.
That moves the story beyond a soldier’s healing, making it more universal, Fleischmann said.
That appeal and ability to draw awareness to a critical issue, Edelson said, is what draws people to opera, or any art form.
“My grandfather served in World War II,” Edelson said, “so for me, war is something fairly distant and far away. But this brings it very much home, it makes it very real, alive and personal.”
The transformation of “The Long Walk” from page to stage is one that happened by chance.
Fleischmann and Beck were commissioned by American Lyric Theater in 2012 to create a new work, but they couldn’t agree on anything.
Finally, exasperated, Beck walked into a Barnes and Noble and started taking pictures of book jackets to send to Fleischmann.
“The Long Walk” was among them, and she called Beck right away and told him it was their story.
Castner’s agent received the pitch and suggested he consider it.
“I took it seriously because Stephanie and Jeremy took it so seriously and their dedication sold me immediately,” Castner said.
The duo has poured that dedication into production the past three years. Fleischmann traveled to the Buffalo area, where the Castner family lives, and interviewed them for more than eight hours.
“That was deeply helpful,” she said, “because as intricate and vivid and exciting and moving as it (‘The Long Walk’) is, it really didn’t include the family.”
As Fleischmann started piecing together the show from the book, building a dramatic structure, she found she was telling the family’s story.
Set to music
By early 2013, Fleischmann had a draft and Beck got to work.
“It took me some time to figure out the technical challenge of it because it is two different worlds the story lives in,” he said. “They set out an enormous musical challenge for me to clearly define those roles as strong as I can, so when Brian’s worlds crash into each other, it really felt like worlds colliding and not just chaos.”
To be able to tell a story with invisible characters — war, brotherhood, a marriage, the “Crazy,” or emotional and mental chaos Brian refers to in his book — Beck uses instruments.
Two electric guitars help distinguish between the worlds.
“They helped me build a musical world that is distinct from the war world and the home world and which can threaten and invade and inject its tentacles into everything else,” Beck said.
To further establish emotional interaction, Beck stages a six-person brass section. “It’s too large for the rest of the orchestra, but it’s on purpose because they help us establish the weight of everything bearing down on this family.”
His strategy is effective, Castner said. “The stuff you’re able to do with music makes it work even better than it does in the book,” he said. “You can impart a certain emotional tone; I try to do it with words, but obviously music is as powerful.”
Saratoga Opera was awarded a grant from OPERA America: The Opera Fund to create programs leading up to the premiere. The first, held at New York State Military Museum, included readings from Castner’s memoir and from the opera.
“There were plenty of people in tears,” Castner said, “and I think that’s less about me than about the quality of the work.”
The father of four feels confident he can handle seeing his story — or a version of it — on the stage. He talks about the damage done in Iraq — physical, from frequent explosions rattling his brain, and living with his brain “soaking in adrenaline,” and emotional — but is certain being exposed to a different audience won’t negatively impact the gains he has made.
He compares the time period in which he wrote “The Long Walk” to a time capsule. “I was in a really bad place; I could never write that book again with the same intensity,” he said.
Castner is grateful for his story to get to a larger audience — and perhaps one that he wouldn’t have reached otherwise. “The ven diagram of who goes to the operas and the average military people — there’s not a lot of overlap there,” he said.
Early reactions to the show are encouraging.
Castner said he is honored veterans of other wars have approached him to thank him for sharing his story. “I had no idea when I wrote this book — I wasn’t trying to speak for other veterans — but it’s a tremendous honor,” he said.