A locally written opera about healing from post-traumatic stress disorder after the Iraq War is headed for a September big-city premiere with big names in the main roles.

A locally written opera about healing from post-traumatic stress disorder after the Iraq War is headed for a September big-city premiere with big names in the main roles.

"The Canticle of the Black Madonna," composed by Ethan Gans-Morse and librettist Tiziana DellaRovere, a Phoenix couple, opens with a Sept. 4-6 run at Portland's Newmark Theater.

At the first showing in Portland, only veterans and their families will be admitted — for free — followed by a "debriefing" with a psychologist who specializes in PTSD.

Veterans are invited to free art therapy sessions in Portland this summer and will be hired to work on and appear in the production, says DellaRovere.

The opera shows the pain, grief and rage of Adam, a veteran returning to his family and facing social isolation and lack of treatment, says Gans-Morse. Adam's wife, Mara, is torn between loyalty to her marriage and wanting safety for herself and her children. The Black Madonna, an age-old icon in Europe, supports them as Adam learns to face his demons.

The opera has drawn a budget of more than $300,000 and some big names, including Michael Mayes of Texas, noted for his title role in many productions of "Dead Man Walking," and Gwendolyn Brown of Chicago, who has achieved similar note as Maria in "Porgy and Bess."

The production has drawn a professional orchestra and chorus, each with two-dozen members. These creds have opened the door to the top level of opera nationally — and the couple are planning for productions in Chicago and Austin, Texas, they say.

"This has been an enormous amount of work over the years," says DellaRovere, but veterans and their families who viewed the work during workshops in Eugene said the opera moved them at the deepest levels.

"Veterans with PTSD said they had said those exact words (in rage) to their families. They said this has got to be seen nationally, and that's where we're taking it," she says.

The production team is mainly from the Portland Opera and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The director is Kristine McIntye of Portland, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera. The producer, Bruce Hostetler, was formerly with the OSF and is now producer of the Ashland Independent Film Festival. Costumer Sue Bonde has worked on "The Lion King" on Broadway and for Paramount, Universal and Warner Brothers. Sets will be by Larry Larson, formerly of the OSF and now a theater producer and professor at the University of Portland.

"Canticle" takes place in Louisiana at the time of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill, and that event echoes the damage to Adam's mind, soul and family — all of which face a major healing journey, led by the mystical force of the Black Madonna.

"It's through the power and strength of the Black Madonna, in visions and dreams, that Adam opens up his pain to Mara, as she struggles with the question, 'Am I doing good by standing with my man?' For this to do any good, Adam has to be willing to face his pain and work with it," explains DellaRovere.

The message of the opera is not that a spouse should stick it out with a traumatized veteran, but that both can find deep spiritual power from a force that is "with us in the trenches, right now, when we hurt deeply in our hearts."

The story, says DellaRovere, has an uplifting and happy ending, as the characters "have the strength and love to transform their shadow, personally and collectively."

Part of the transformation is that the couple go back to the land to grow food — and to heal through connection with the Earth.

To understand the dynamics and language of PTSD, DellaRovere researched, read and watched blogs and interviews of Iraq War veterans and called on her own memories of her father, a veteran of the Italian Army, who came home from World War II with the syndrome.

The opera is part of a new wave of opera in the world, says Gans-Morse, "that's exciting, innovative and that reinvents the art form, while using high artistic and production values and facing relevant social issues."

In a statement about the opera, Bill Ritch of Ashland, a Silver Star recipient, says, "it opened my heart and brought new healing for me, 44 years after I returned from Vietnam."

Oregon National Guard veteran Miah Washburn, in a pitch for the opera, said, "You honor me and my brothers and sisters in arms with this opera. As a combat veteran, I am truly and deeply touched that you have undertaken such an elusive and misunderstood issue."

In a couple years, the couple plan to tackle a whole new area of societal dysfunction — human trafficking.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.