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Through ‘Veteran Journeys,’ a UCLA professor seeks to turn taboo topics into song – and hope



Veterans issues, such as homelessness and mental health, are often considered taboo or difficult topics to talk about. So one UCLA professor decided to sing about them instead.

Dr. Kenneth Wells, professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Semel Institute and David Geffen School of Medicine, wrote the music and libretto for “Veteran Journeys”, an opera about pressing issues facing servicemen and women once they’ve returned home from war and retired to civilian life.  “Veteran Journeys” will premiere on Thursday, June 3, with a second performance scheduled for Sunday, June 6.

“One reason that I integrated a focus on art/composing with areas of my clinical and research work, is that community partners in our community-participatory research on depression emphasized the importance of arts as an engagement strategy to address stigma,” Wells said.

Wells based the opera on research interviews conducted by the RAND Corporation and UCLA. Researchers interviewed veterans and their families with 10-year follow-ups and recorded the conversations. Wells listened to these recordings while writing the opera, though he’s disguised the interviewees in order to maintain the confidential nature of the tapes.

Wells said many of the interviews touched him emotionally, particularly a moment where one interviewee asked if someone could throw them a metaphorical rope.

“When I was composing it and listening to that interview, I was just crying,” Wells said. “What a powerful way about talking about being on your own.”

Once Wells finished the music and libretto, he started searching for a cast. For his bass lead, Wells found Patrick Blackwell, a trained opera singer, who also happened to have close family in the military. His father and late brother both served in the United States Army and, though they didn’t face the same challenges that the characters in the opera face, Blackwell said he knows how prevalent certain problems, like post-traumatic stress disorder, are in the veteran community.

Blackwell himself, however, has never served and said the potential reactions of real veterans watching him perform has crossed his mind a few times.

“I can certainly feel a sense of empathy, if you will, toward the people who have, and I know there are many different aspects of despair, depression, homelessness, that is so real,” Blackwell said. “And I can only hope and trust that they appreciate this monumental work that Dr. Wells has so brilliantly written.”

For what it’s worth, the opera wasn’t written in a vacuum. Dr. Wells said he shared the libretto with homeless veterans in focus groups facilitated by the local VA. He said the work was generally well-received, though minor changes were made, including adding an announcement during intermission about how veterans struggling with any of the problems in the opera could get real mental health help if they need it.

An important point Wells also wanted to highlight was how disproportionally African-American and Latino veterans are affected by both homelessness and mental health issues. Wells said the original research study that became the basis for the opera was one of the first to prioritize the experiences of these minority groups who were traditionally underrepresented in such studies.

Bringing attention to race as it relates to mental health in the veterans community is actually another reason Wells decided to cast Blackwell in one of the roles. Not only does Blackwell have a strong, bass voice, but he is also an African-American, a veteran population that experiences higher rates of mental health and homelessness issues.

Blackwell also mentioned that, although the show isn’t a political statement, he hopes that the show will make it clear to audiences that everyone can do more to honor their veterans.

“He has needs that need to be administered to,” Blackwell said. “Not to bring any sense of politics to this, but I believe our government could do a much better job in serving our men and women who serve so valiantly.”

Wells hopes that, beside honoring veterans as Blackwell also champions, if veteran’s in the audience walks away with anything, it’s that they don’t have manage their trauma alone.

“Veterans, get help if you need it,” Wells said. “There is hope for you.”

If you watch:

WHAT: “Veteran Journeys”

WHEN: at 7 p.m. June 3; 2 p.m. June 6

WHERE: You can watch over Zoom or YouTube by registering at the event here.

WHO: The work is sponsored by Healing and Education through the Arts (HEArts). The group supports new art works to promote mental wellness and address mental health stigma, and evaluation of the performances’ impact on audiences. The opera and libretto was written by Dr. Kenneth Wells, professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Semel Institute and David Geffen School of Medicine.

Source: Orange County Register

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