A locally written opera about healing from post-traumatic stress disorder from the war in Afghanistan is headed for a Portland premiere with big names in opera in the main roles.

A locally written opera about healing from post-traumatic stress disorder from the war in Afghanistan is headed for a Portland premiere with big names in opera in the main roles.

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

At the first showing in Portland, only veterans and their families will be admitted — for free — with a debriefing afterward 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, an Afghanistan war 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 baritone Michael Mayes of Texas, noted for his title role in many productions of Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," and contralto 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 credentials have opened the door to the top level of opera nationally — and Gans-Morse and DellaRovere 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 Portland Opera and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The director is Kristine McIntyre of Portland, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera. The producer, Bruce Hostetler, was formerly with OSF and is now production manager of the Ashland Independent Film Festival. Costumer Sue Bonde has worked on "The Lion King" on Broadway and for Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. Sets will be by Larry Larson, formerly of OSF and now a theater producer and professor at University of Portland.

"Black Madonna" 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, who faces a 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?'" says DellaRovere.

"For this to do any good, Adam has to be willing to face his pain and work with it."

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 Middle East 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 disorder.

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."

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