A Veteran's Piercing True Story Leaps From Page To Stage | St. Louis Public Radio

A Veteran's Piercing True Story Leaps From Page To Stage

Jul 20, 2013
Originally published on July 23, 2013 5:26 pm

Iraq veteran Brian Castner wrote a book about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder for his kids, so they could someday know what he'd been going through when he came home from war.

"The first thing you should know about me is that I'm crazy," Castner writes in the opening passage of his 2012 memoir, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows. "I haven't always been. Until that one day, the day I went crazy, I was fine. Or I thought I was. Not anymore."

Castner discovered that he'd lost many memories of family life, perhaps from repeated exposure to bomb blasts. The book, a chronicle of making peace with the changed person he's become, was well-received, and Castner is working on another. It also brought some surprises — including an offer to turn his story into an opera.

"The book is very musical," says Stephanie Fleischmann, the librettist of the opera version of The Long Walk. "It's very fragmented in terms of chronology — it's all the interior of Brian Castner's mind. He uses refrain over and over again; that is already a very musical form."

Fleischmann collaborated with composer Jeremy Howard Beck, with the sponsorship of the American Lyric Theater in New York. Beck says he was drawn to telling a story about the Iraq War because of what he sees as a dangerous disconnect between veterans and civilians.

"I've heard the attitude that unless you are a veteran, you can't understand what these people have been through. I don't think that's benign," Beck says. "You take a group of people and you isolate them and tell them that most people will never understand what they've been through. If I can do something to dismantle that idea, I would like to."

The opera also highlights the perspective of Brian Castner's wife: Beck and Fleischmann did extensive interviews with both Brian and Jessie Castner while writing the piece. One aria depicts Jessie asking her grandmother how to treat a husband who is coming home from war:

He won't come home, my grandmother said
The war will kill him, he's good as dead

Accompanied by sparse and haunting guitar and piano, she relates her grandmother's response:

I hope for your sake he dies over there
Because if the war doesn't kill him, it'll take him here
The war will kill him at home

In the opera, Jessie vows that that won't happen, that she'll keep the family together. But later, when she finds her husband sitting for hours outside their sons' bedroom holding a loaded gun, she realizes that the man she married did not come home.

Brian and Jessie Castner got to hear the opera as a work in progress at a special preview performance this summer in New York. Jessie says the opera got quickly to the heart of their family's experience, something that she says it's taken years to explain to her family and friends.

"You'll get this assumption: 'I bet you're so glad Brian's home safe and everything's fine,' " she says. "Why would you assume that everything's fine?"

The opera overlaps scenes of the Castners eating dinner with their children with scenes of Brian Castner and his fellow soldiers in Iraq. A military funeral scene overlaps with a scene from domestic life, as a military widow sings a duet with a military wife.

"There was a feeling of grief and loss in our family, and it was the death of our marriage as we knew it," Jessie Castner says — though she says it smiling, with her husband standing by her side.

For his part, Brian Castner has seen his book become a story he no longer controls as it morphs into a modern opera. Castner is pleased at the thought of connecting the military world and the opera world.

"There's this huge gulf between the average civilian community in the United States and veterans and the military," he says, "so this opera doesn't have to reach the military. If it reaches people that might never have been associated with the military, then I think that's even more important."

The American Lyric Theater is planning to present the full score of The Long Walk sometime in 2014.

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"The Long Walk," a memoir by Iraq veteran Brian Castner, recounts his time on a bomb disposal team and the difficult challenge of coming home. Castner discovered that he'd lost many memories of family life - perhaps from repeated exposure to big bomb blasts. He began to realize he'd never be the same.


WERTHEIMER: That's Castner speaking with NPR last summer. The book got good reviews and Castner is working on another book. But in the meantime, the story is getting a rather surprising rebirth as an opera. NPR's Quil Lawrence got a preview.


QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: New operas for new audiences is the motto of the American Lyric Theatre in New York City. "The Long Walk" certainly sounds new, stripped down with just piano, guitar and voice. The subject is new, too - the very modern tale of Brian Castner, made a stranger to himself by post-traumatic stress disorder.

DANIEL BELCHER: (as Brian) (Singing) There are two of me now... It's Daniel Belcher playing Brian Castner. (Singing) The crazy, the crazy, the crazy, then there's the other. There are two of me now... In the opera, he discusses how he literally was outside of himself watching himself - there are two of me now. (Singing) Watching the other, watching the crazy pack lunches, check homework.

LAWRENCE: Like the book, the opera shows Brian Castner trying to fit in back at home, packing lunches for his sons, checking their homework. What the opera adds is the voice of Jessie Castner, Brian's wife. She watches her husband's distress and it reminds her of a warning her grandmother gave her.

HEATHER JOHNSON: (as Jessie) (Singing) My grandfather died on the living room floor, 10 years after he came back from the war... It's Heather Johnson playing Jessie Castner. (Singing) World War II killed him at home... Basically, her, you know, grandmother said: Your husband's not going to come home, regardless if he comes home alive or dead. The war will kill him inside if he comes home alive.

LAWRENCE: That prophecy comes true to some extent. Jessie realizes that her husband is a different person. He's paranoid, unable to keep violent memories of war out of the quiet home where his wife and sons sleep.

BELCHER: (as Daniel) (Singing) As I sit at the top of the stairs... He sits guard on the stairs in the middle of the night with his gun, always checking to making sure that his gun is loaded, ready to fire at a moment's notice. (Singing) As I keep my sleeping boys safe.

JOHNSON: And in the end, when she realized that he's been sitting at the top of the stairs for six hours' time with a gun in front of their sons' rooms, that it has happened and she's lost her husband. And she says, she finally admits, you didn't come home.

BELCHER: (as Brian) (Singing) Please send me...

LAWRENCE: Brian Castner never expected the opera world to take an interest in his story.

: There's this huge gulf between the average civilian community in the United States and veterans and the military. And so if this opera - doesn't have to reach the military - if it reaches people that might never have been associated with the military otherwise, I think that's even more important.

LAWRENCE: Castner and his wife Jessie recently got a preview of the work in progress, seeing their family portrayed on stage for the first time. Jessie Castner says the opera captured her struggle to find peace in her family after her husband's return from Iraq.

JESSIE CASTNER: You'll get this assumption: Oh, I bet you're so glad Brian's home safe and everything's fine. And it's sort of like: Why would you assume everything's fine? And then it got to, quickly, something it takes me years to explain to people who love us.

LAWRENCE: Brain Caster wrote "The Long Walk" partly out of despair, so his sons could know what he was going through if the family didn't stay together. Castner now says has his crazy is under control and his family has accepted the changed man who is their husband and father. The American Lyric Theatre is planning to present the full score of "The Long Walk" sometime in 2014.

JOHNSON: (as Jessie) (Singing) He won't come home, my grandmother said...

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, New York.

JOHNSON: (as Jessie) (Singing) The one is (unintelligible). I hope for your sake we...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.