Dead Equal asks its audience, “When you think of a soldier, what do you see?”
There is a second underlying question in the bold choice to explore women’s military experiences through this medium: “When you think of opera, what do you see?”
Forget the traditional wigs, corsets, and elaborate makeup. Dead Equal’s trio of diverse, talented singers (Lila Palmer, Teiya Kasahara, and Simone Ibbet-Brown) express both strength and vulnerability in modern camouflage and early 1900s military gear. A stage piled with sandbags, a few written letters as props, and subtle lighting changes help to transport the audience to the combat grounds where these women’s lives are based.
The plot centers around an intriguing historical friendship between Flora Sandes, a real-life British woman who became a decorated member of the Serbian Allied Army in WWI, and her friend and volunteer nurse, Emily Simmond. Their relationship is interwoven with modern scenes exploring the issues of contemporary servicewomen.
There are moments in Dead Equal where the operatic approach works better than others. At times, the booming voices add gorgeous melodious weight to the emotions being expressed. At other times, the difficulty in understanding the lyrics took away from my ability to follow the conversations or absorb the message. I found myself most engrossed in a short scene of two characters simply speaking to each other instead of singing, partially because I wanted to hear every word (and more) that these compelling characters had to say.
Dead Equal also takes on an ambitious number of issues surrounding military service. The show touches on gender expectations, motherhood, queerness, military hierarchies, public perceptions of soldiers, moral struggles of following rules or saving lives, tensions between a mission of healing and being surrounded by violence, and the tragically inevitable casualties of war. Many of the conversations switched to another storyline just as I wanted them to dive deeper. The show could possibly benefit from more consistency in themes when transitioning from historical moments to modern day to add depth and continuity to the topics being addressed.
Overall this first-time premiere shows incredible promise and established vocal talent in challenging what we expect on an operatic stage. It’s worth trekking to the army base to witness this bold experiment in musical storytelling. The often-ignored narratives of military women certainly deserve voices this powerful to have their struggles, achievements, and experiences heard.
The Feminist Fringe