Turning the trauma of war into operatic rock

A soldier who fought in Jenin in 2002 has turned his angst and despair into Israel's first 'rock opera.'

Milhama 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Milhama 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Milhama, the Hebrew word for war, is also the title of a new production billed as a "Rock Opera." If you've never heard the term "rock opera," you're not alone. It may even sound like a gimmick dreamed up by savvy marketing gurus or artists too elitist to use the term "musical." However, after sitting through this edgy, gritty 90-minute rock music tale about the angst of an IDF soldier, one is easily convinced that the genre is authentic. Kobi Vitman, star and writer of Milhama, penned the show's music and lyrics over a period of four years following his return from Operation Defensive Shield (2002), where he served as a reservist in Jenin. The operation is regarded as being amongst the most vicious and bloody battles in Israel's history. Vitman's unit lost 13 troops in a half hour period. The play is based on the actor/writer/musician's experience after returning home from battle. Milhama opens with a blackened stage with an angry red glow seeping through the edges. A faint booming in the distance grows in strength, building until it fills every corner of the auditorium. The slow fade in of the lights brings into focus a quartet of random characters scattered about the stage. Against the backdrop stands a brooding Pink Floyd inspired rock band - replete with the obligatory uniform of gothic tee shirts and grimy denim. An introductory monologue soon gives way to a pounding full force opening number from the band. Vitman plays himself - a man unable to readjust to civilian life, wandering about the stage searching for some sort of answer to his internal angst. The three other characters on stage all represent segments of Israeli society. Maya (Ayelet Robinson), the only woman, is the figure of the mother and wife who wants her son/husband to go off to war and be a hero, but at the same time is torn by the fear that he may never return and is disturbed by the shell of a man that actually comes back. The two other characters - the dead soldier (Yaniv Levi) and the military commander (Dvir Benedek) - are polar opposite voices that torment Vitman. The former reinforces the necessity of war and the soldier's duty whilst the latter becomes the voice of conscience, questioning the absurdity of it all. The performances are raw and emotional, the dialogue powerful and thought provoking. AS A show, Milhama is engaging from start to finish. The stage design is simple but impressive, featuring minimal props that are rich in symbolism. The band (an acoustic guitar, drums, an electric guitar, a keyboard and a bass guitar) sits in a semicircle behind what at first glance appears to be a bunker, but is eventually recognized as a coffin. The character of the wife watches over an empty baby carriage throughout the entire performance. Whether or not you like rock, it is hard not to be caught up in the sounds this group of skilled musicians sends hurtling through the underground auditorium. The music could easily hold the show on its own, and the Tzavta theater, a slightly grungy bohemian basement venue in central Tel Aviv, feels tailor made for this kind of show. Enthusiastic ovations following the shows reflect audience approval. In fact, two Israeli documentary filmmakers, Hilla Medalia and Ayelet Cohen, were so moved by Vitman and his journey that they have begun producing a documentary film about the show and its star. According to Vitman, many of the themes in the show are autobiographical. "When I came back (from Jenin), I couldn't sleep or wake up in the morning. It went on for about 3 or 4 months. I didn't want to do anything - not work, not anything. It was more than strange - I'm a musician, we're supposed to love what we do." Eventually Vitman began to write, but he emphasizes that it wasn't in some sort of attempt to exorcise the ghosts of his experiences. "I started writing the music with no particular aim. Then the lyrics for the songs came and then the monologues and the dialogues - it took me four years to realize what I wanted to do." Vitman says that it's only now that he understands the depth of what he needed to process. "I didn't feel it along the way - I had no idea at all that there was even something to have to deal with. In the beginning I was too focused on the music and the technical side, issues like where we would find the actors." According to clinical psychologist and specialist in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Miki Doron, this failure to identify the potentially debilitating effects of war on a returned soldier is not uncommon in Israeli society. "A lot of men come back and don't know they have suffered or aren't aware they've been emotionally scarred. They don't expect that what they experienced will have any impact - they expect themselves to be fine and to simply go on and return to normal life." Doron, who spent several years as the IDF's Chief Mental Health Officer, says that many of the affected soldiers "get used to it and end up staying in that state. Their girlfriends and their wives speak about them not feeling, and lacking intense emotions." Doron is enthusiastic about the show as a valuable cathartic experience not only for returned veterans, but also for the people around them. He, like Vitman, agrees that many men who have not yet connected with their suffering "may need an experience like sitting through Milhama, with its powerful emotion and symbolism, to bring the issue to the fore." Vitman himself recalls an audience member who thanked him profusely at the end of one show because it was the first time he had confronted what he was feeling. The man was a veteran of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Vitman makes one thing clear. "The show is not anti-army. We don't want to be the show that says don't go to the army, because that's not what we believe. It's about questioning the price of sending us." Tickets can be purchased at the Tzavta theater box office.