Hundreds of thousands classified military documents don’t exactly sound like ideal fodder for an opera libretto, but on October 19 LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects will present the west coast premiere of Ted Hearne’s The Source, drawn from the U.S. Department of Defense cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 and the story of the U.S. Army private who leaked them. It is the season’s first foray into staging operas tackling contemporary themes (followed by Kamala Sankaram’s Thumbprint in the spring).
Whistleblower Chelsea Manning gave hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. However, The Source is not a linear depiction of the events leading to Manning’s eventual arrest and the 35-year prison sentence she has been serving since 2013, nor is it a retreading of the media hysteria surrounding her story. Instead, the opera approaches Manning’s identity by engaging with the content of the leaks themselves: that is, the day-to-day accounts of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Source shows us what opera can do in the digital age – technically – but also how it can place current events in a different and unexpected light. Through a larger than life four-channel video installation created by Daniel Fish and Jim Findlay, a chorus of silent witnesses looms. Four singers are housed alongside the audience in a visceral installation. Singing with (at times) electronically-processed voices, and accompanied by a live ensemble of seven instrumentalists, they inhabit (through Mark Doten’s libretto) an assemblage of Twitter feeds, cable news reports, chat transcripts, and classified military video.
Manning remains incarcerated to this day, at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. This fall, after she was placed in solitary confinement as punishment for a suicide attempt, Manning went on a hunger strike to demand adequate care from the U.S. military for her gender dysphoria. The Guardian has published numerous opinion columns she has written from prison.