Brian Castner called it “the Crazy”: the profound disassociation from everyday life, sometimes including hallucinations, that he felt on returning from duty in Iraq as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) captain in the Air Force.
Castner recounted his service and its effects in his acclaimed 2012 memoir The Long Walk. In 2015, composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann debuted their opera adaptation. From Jan. 20-28, courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera, The Long Walk receives just its third production, with four performances at the intimate, 400-seat CAPA School Theater.
Castner’s “long walk” references both an EOD’s solitary approach to a suspected explosive and, more metaphorically, the struggle to adjust to civilian life. “It’s an extremely lonely experience. No one can help you,” Castner has said — a quote about his battlefield experience that the opera shows can also apply to learning how to relate to one’s family. In an early scene, Castner’s wife argues with the kids about them eating their carrots while his mind replays the time he and his unit encountered an Iraqi boy whose cell phone might have been a detonator. Something as simple as preparing one of his three young sons for hockey practice can summon the Crazy.
Beck’s contemporary score suggests these experiences with atonal sounds and instrumentation not often seen in opera. In addition to strings, brass and woodwind, the production’s 17 musicians play two electric guitars, electronic keyboards and heavy percussion, and use their instruments to mimic gunfire and other battle sounds. “There’s a couple of places where [Beck] wants the orchestra to sound like a garage band,” says conductor Glenn Lewis. While the score is atonal (with notes outside the normal tonal range), Lewis emphasizes that the opera employs the familiar forms of arias, duets and ensembles.
The 11-member cast features Pittsburgh Opera resident artist Ben Taylor, a baritone who calls Long Walk “by far the most challenging score I’ve ever sung, but it’s absolutely the most rewarding score.” One particular challenge: Because Castner ran long-distance as a coping mechanism, Taylor must do much of his singing in this two-hour-plus opera while running in place.
The Opera’s supplementary programming includes a Jan. 21 book-signing by Castner himself.