Constable: Some suburban veterans find a way to heal, with opera

  • In this anthem scene from the opera "The Falling and The Rising," a chorus of veterans appear on stage at The Mary Wilson House-Beyer Auditorium in Park Ridge, while images of their younger selves are shown on the video screen.

    In this anthem scene from the opera "The Falling and The Rising," a chorus of veterans appear on stage at The Mary Wilson House-Beyer Auditorium in Park Ridge, while images of their younger selves are shown on the video screen. Courtesy of Petite Opera Productions

  • At home on a stage with a military setting, Vietnam veteran and chorus member Ron Kobeluch chats with Susan Baushke about the military opera "The Falling and The Rising." Baushke is executive director of Petite Opera Productions, which is presenting the opera's Chicago premiere in Park Ridge.

      At home on a stage with a military setting, Vietnam veteran and chorus member Ron Kobeluch chats with Susan Baushke about the military opera "The Falling and The Rising." Baushke is executive director of Petite Opera Productions, which is presenting the opera's Chicago premiere in Park Ridge. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/11/2019 6:25 PM

There are myriad ways to honor veterans on Veterans Day, but there's only one opera partially commissioned by the Army. And the cast includes local veterans.

"This is the first of its kind," says Susan Baushke, a Des Plaines resident and executive director of Petite Opera Productions. The not-for-profit company is presenting the new opera, "The Falling and the Rising," at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 24 at The Mary Wilson House-Beyer Auditorium, 306 S. Prospect Ave., Park Ridge.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The work is the brainchild of Sgt. Ben Hilbert, an opera singer who got a master's degree in music at the Chicago College of Performing Arts before enlisting in the Army at age 29. Now 38 and married with three young children, Hilbert persuaded the Army to help fund the opera, which includes lyrics by Jerre Dye and music by Zach Redler. The stories are told by five performers portraying veterans, including Brandon Sokol of Buffalo Grove as the Homecoming Soldier in a wheelchair. Eight veterans sing in the chorus.

"All of them have a lot of credentials," Baushke says, noting many Petite Opera Productions' performers have sung with the prestigious Chicago Symphony Chorus or the Lyric Opera Chorus.

"Each character sings things that heal," says Veterans Chorus singer Ron Kobeluch, 68, a former Des Plaines resident and Navy veteran who spent the bulk of 1970-71 in Vietnam. "They're talking about subjects that affect veterans."

Family, sacrifice, service and commitment were themes that kept coming up during conversations with veterans, including the wounded being treated at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Hilgert says.

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"Everything about this is very real. Sometimes you have to get it into a different medium to really hear the stories," Baushke says.

When the chorus tells a wounded female veteran that she is not alone, that hits home with Kobeluch, who was a prisoner of war and later earned a bachelor's degree in composing and arranging music from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Since I got out of Vietnam, that's what veterans have always done. We learn to trust each other," he says. A former Des Plaines resident and retired accountant at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, Kobeluch says "I didn't talk much" about his service. His wife, Mary, who died in 2017, didn't even know he was a POW until that information showed up on a form at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Veterans want to get back into life. The problem is life may not be ready to get into them," says Kobeluch, who remembers turning to alcohol when he came home from Vietnam but now celebrates 30 years of sobriety.

Singing the lyrics can be triggering. "I always feel the pain. Do I tear up? I avoid it," Kobeluch says, noting that he needs to keep his voice strong.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I don't think they intended this to be a healing opera, but it is," Baushke says. "I'm so overwhelmed at what they did for us. You're applauding like crazy and you're crying like crazy, and it's happy tears. I'm choking up at different parts every single night."

Music can be a successful tool in therapy, and opera is a good medium for expressing emotions.

"We like to do things that are life-changing for the audience," Baushke says, comparing this opera to one several years ago about the Holocaust.

While "The Falling and The Rising" was written for a 13-piece orchestra, Redler says he wrote it on the piano. The local production uses only a piano, and that adds to the intimacy of the performance.

"We wanted to make sure this piece was apolitical. We wanted to showcase people," Redler says. "I didn't want the score to be intimidating to people, specifically veterans, for whom this would their first opera."

After every performance, the audience is invited to ask questions and discuss the stories.

"The opera is great, but the best part is the talkback," Redler says of the question-and-answer period. "It's a way in. We didn't anticipate that. It wasn't a goal. But it does -- it heals. Our country needs these moments when people come together."

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