Kobi Vitman was on his way to a vacation when he got a phone call that turned his life around. It was 2002, and he was being called to serve in Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's response to a series of Palestinian terror attacks.
Vitman's unit was ordered into Jenin, where the house-to-house fighting in the densely populated refugee camp was especially treacherous. On April 9, a squad from his unit was ambushed, and in the ensuing firefight and rescue attempt, 13 soldiers were slain.
Vitman, a musician by profession, came away hurt and confused and found it difficult to return to civilian life. He had put out an album just before the operation began and cites the confusion left by the battle as one of the reasons for the album's lack of success. But while he struggled to cope with memories, he was also writing rock songs to express his anger and disappointment with the nation's military.
"I told people about how we didn't have proper provisions, how we lacked night-vision equipment. People would just shrug me off like I was whining. Now, after the Second Lebanon War, people are coming to me and telling me, 'Hey, that's just what happened to me.'"
Finding that the songs required more structure to bring the point home, Vitman hit upon the idea of a rock opera - a production he calls "a mixture of theater and rock concert." The setup of War: The Rock Opera involves a five-member band playing continuously, as well as four actors, including Vitman, who sing or speak out the storyline.
Working with director Ika Zohar, Vitman says both actors and musicians found the mixture of styles fruitful.
"I purposely chose musicians who had a sense for theater and actors who could not only sing but could really relate to the idea of rock opera," an art form associated with landmark double-disc opuses from the Seventies. "But obviously, this was a totally new experiment for everyone involved."
Vitman sees the power of rock as the ultimate way to express his disillusionment with the army as an organization. He insists that his opera's message is not a political one.
"It's not about Right or Left. When I was in Jenin, Ariel Sharon was prime minister and Shaul Mofaz was the minister of defense. In Lebanon, it was Olmert and Peretz.
"It's about how the army works as an organization. You could never run a private business like that. It's our good luck that we have so many dedicated people who give so much and make up for the terrible way the army treats them."
Asked whether he sees hope for the future, Vitman replies: "I hope so. These problems are rooted deep within our society, but one always has to hope there can be change. Perhaps the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War will bring some redress.
"The important thing is to make our voices heard."
The opera's premiere takes place today at 1 p.m. at Tel Aviv's Tzvta Theater, 30 Ibn Gvirol St.; tickets at *6646.