Can the Power of Love Heal the Wounds of War? Veterans Meet the Black Madonna

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CanticleAdamBy Rowan Wolf, Editor in Chief

[Former Oregon National Guardsman SFC Sean Davis as Sgt Bryan and Michael Mayes as Adam. Photo: Jenny Graham/Anima Mundi Productions.]

[A]lmost everyone knows someone who went to war and came back a very different – and damaged – person. We have finally defined an illness – “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” or PTSD – to try to neatly pigeon-hole the psychological fallout of war. In a remarkably short time PTSD has gone from a taboo topic to a minimized catch-phrase appearing in jokes and snide remarks. This can tend to minimize the experience rather than seriously address the depth of the problem. Almost forgotten is the dogged battle veterans have fought for decades to get the Veterans Administration (VA) to finally recognize PTSD as a service-related injury. It is tremendously important to recognize that trauma is the key, and PTSD is not the only psychological manifestation of the traumas of war. That trauma also results in other issues such as drug or alcohol addiction as many self-medicate for these traumas.

Less than 0.5% of the population has served in the contemporary military,[1] but they make up more than 10% of the incarcerated population, [2] and they have a suicide rate significantly higher than the civilian population. Everyday 22 veterans die from suicide. [3] As bad as that last number is, it may actually be a drastic under count as only 21 states (covering about 40% of the US population) even report suicides. [4] In addition about 12% of the homeless population are veterans [5] compared to about 1% of the US population as a whole. [6]

Problems, lots of problems, let’s call them “re-entry” problems, go far beyond veterans returning to civilian life. While we are just at the beginning of seeing the military de-stigmatize admitting that one has problematic psychological effects as a result of one’s service, almost no one is looking beyond the vet to the loved ones who are the closest “collateral damage.” Further, what we do not face squarely, and largely try to make invisible, is that all of us are impacted by the wounds of war. Bottom line, it is we who sent them to war, and we who bear the invisible scars on our psyche for doing so.

Can love heal the wounds of war?


The Canticle of the Black Madonna, an opera that focuses on the wounds of war and the power of love, is exploring that question.

[Flashbacks with Adam, Mara, and ghosts. Jenny Graham / Anima Mundi Productions]

At the center of the story is a soldier (Adam) who returns from Afghanistan to his wife (Mara) and their home in Louisiana in the midst of the devastation of the 2010 Gulf oil disaster. The story compares and contrasts the physical and emotional devastation of a man’s war-shattered soul with the environmental and financial devastation of the Gulf oil disaster, which an abundance of life covered in the miasma of a gushing broken well.

We see that the devastation of war flows over all that it touches leaving behind victims suffocating in its wake, in the same way that oil choked the lives out of all whom it touched.

CanticleMadonnaAdamMaraThe Canticle is a gritty look into the lives trapped within these dual disasters, which then crashes into the healing power of love. This face of love takes two different embodiments.One is in the form of Mara, who struggles to embrace her husband while struggling to save their failing oyster business through the Gulf oil disaster. The other arises with the power of the earth in its will to live, with power of divine love, embodied by the Black Madonna.

The Black Madonna is an archetypal figure known all over the world as a symbol of deep love and healing. She reflects in many ways the power of total acceptance and love.

The Black Madonna is known from Poland, to Switzerland, to Africa, and South America, as one who grants miracles to those who beseech her. She stands squarely in the center of this story and facilitates the journey of healing.

Contralto Gwendolyn Brown, who portrayed the Black Madonna, and shines in this stunning role, states:

I pray that when people see me on stage, and once I sing that first aria, they begin to desire the healing of Adam and Mara and keep the hope that my presence facilitates that healing. And, perhaps in that hope, some may be healed themselves.

TizianaDellaRovereLibrettistThe librettist, Ms. Tiziana DellaRovere, discusses the Black Madonna as a part of her cultural heritage mentioning that there are enormous basilicas and major pilgrim sites dedicated to this dark Madonna all over Europe. She is the Madonna of the people.

DellaRovere says:

… the statement that I made in choosing the Black Madonna (instead of the “Celestial Madonna” which is better known to Americans) is very important. In doing so I am confronting an ancient patriarchal archetype: in patriarchy, the light, the sun, the sky, are considered divine, good, and superior and the darkness, the earth, and the ground, all that which is below, are considered inferior and synonymous with bad and evil.
The Black Madonna is the embodiment of divine love that comes from the mystery of the unknown, from the depths of the earth, the night and it completely overturns this false premise that dark is bad and light is good. It makes that which is dark into that which is loving, good, and healing. We are so afraid of the dark that we project all sorts of destructiveness into all that is dark, including the skin.

Ms. DellaRovere’s inspiration to compare the Gulf oil disaster with the ravages of PTSD sprung from her personal experience:

At the same time (as troops were coming home with PTSD), the BP oil spill on the coast of Louisiana was destroying ecosystems, killing pelicans and dolphins, poisoning marine life, and dislodging entire communities that lived off the fruits of the sea.

I intertwined these two themes because I saw a connection between the shattering of the soul of the veterans caused by the war and the ravaging of the environment caused by the oil spill. Both of these issues are larger than life, and opera–through the passionate intensity of music and the grand spectacle of theater–lends itself perfectly as a medium of expression and transformation.

Now, I am not a fan of opera. In fact, I could say with some chagrin than I have not been to the opera since a Junior High cultural expedition with my music teacher. Thus, like many of the working class I have had neither the money, exposure, nor inclination to familiarize myself with this art form. However, even with this lack of exposure, I can see that The Canticle is very different from opera as I have known (assumed) it to be. It tells a story of critical personal and social importance — in English!

The Canticle of the Black Madonna was produced by a new opera company, Anima Mundi Productions/ It premiered in Portland, Oregon on September 5 and 6, 2014. In conjunction, Anima Mundi offered numerous services for veterans with PTSD–art sessions, live events, psychological services, organizational partnerships, and opportunities to give feedback and appear as supernumeraries (non-singing extras) in the show.

The company is top flight in operatic experience and performance with award-winning vocalists, and Stage Director Kristine McIntyre formerly of the Metropolitan Opera, and stunning costumes by Susan Bonde. (Click here for full cast and production crew.)

From my observations of performances – and my communications with various members of the troupe – everyone is dedicated to the healing power of art and of love. In this case, they are dedicated to those lives which have been destroyed by man-made war and a man-made environmental catastrophe. They are also clearly dedicated to taking opera in a different direction in order to make it more accessible, and pertinent to contemporary issues.

Via The Canticle of the Black Madonna, Anima Mundi Productions has also broken new opera ground in that it is joining with other projects and services in its outreach to veterans and their loved ones. Sean Davis, an author and retired Oregon Army National Guardsman and Purple Heart recipient, is the veteran coordinator working with Anima Mundi Productions in including veterans in all aspects of the The Canticle, from support, to stage crew, to casting supernumeraries, including outreach to veterans thorugh the opera.

Because The Canticle deals squarely with the reintegration issues that vets may have (including PTSD) there was a special performance specifically reserved for veterans. This event included a debrief session afterwards with a psychologist.

I was impressed by the breath-taking sweep of what Anima Mundi Productions is doing with The Canticle of the Black Madonna. It is clear that the aim here is healing, and that for all involved there is a deep sincerity in the loving approach they are taking, and their commitment to art as a vehicle of healing. Indeed, one feels that loving commitment in the performance, and each of the people who are involved (at least for those I have had the honor to meet and communicate with).

EthanGansMorseConductingWhen I asked The Canticle composer and Anima Mundi Productions Executive Director, Ethan Gans-Morse, about where Anima Mundi was headed after the premiere of The Canticle, he responded:

We are committed to creating art of the highest quality to address the urgent social challenges of our times.

Anima Mundi Productions is dedicated to premiering original operas, concerts, and art installations based on hard-hitting, contemporary, and socially-relevant themes and stories, each offering a unique catharsis and healing component that enables the audience to directly experience the healing power of divine love and the alignment of new, healthier global archetypes.

Additionally, we will use The Canticle of the Black Madonna as a model for a series of operas that will address the crucial, high-pro file social issues of our times, including themes of human trafficking, immigration, domestic violence, and economic sustainability.

We are currently fundraising to bring The Canticle of the Black Madonna to more audiences across the country.

Anima Mundi Productions has taken opera in a new direction with The Canticle of the Black Madonna, and reached out to individuals who generally don’t show up at operas. The fact that I am one of those people is likely reflected in this article, but while I am not terribly familiar with opera, I am fairly familiar with music and musicians, and even a bit of theater. And even without a background in opera, I found the performance to be exceptional, and well worth seeing.

Canticle9AngelThe Canticle of the Black Madonna is an inspiration whether you are a veteran, related to one, or you are of the general community. There are many things to learn, and many wounds to heal, and The Canticle is a deeply touching vehicle of that communication and healing.

Let’s hope Anima Mundi Productions gets the funding they need so they can continue to use the arts to offer that healing to those who are in need of it.


Managing Editor Meryl Ann Butler contributed to this article.

More info at the The Canticle of the Black Madonna website.

For further details on the opera, performers and related activities, see the program.


[1] Eikenberry & Kennedy, Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart, NY Times, 5/26/13.

[2] Wolfe, From PTSD to Prison: Why Veterans Become Criminals, Daily Beast, 7/28/13.

[3] Stop Soldier Suicide.

[4] Basu, Why suicide rate among veterans may be more than 22 a day, CNN, 11/14/2013.

[5] National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

[6] Homelessness in the United States, Wikipedia.

Special Notes

The author wishes to offer special thanks to Ethan Gans-Morse, Tiziana DellaRovere, Gwendolyn Brown, and Gretchen Hoffman for taking time to thoughtfully answer my many questions.

“Northwest Previews” on radio station All-Classical Portland, did an excellent interview with librettist Tiziana DellaRovere, composer/producer Ethan Gans-Morse, and Veterans Services Coordinator Sean Davis, and includes a sampling of the music.

Sean Davis is author of the autobiographical, The Wax Bullet War: Chronicles of a Soldier & Artist.

Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief for Cyrano’s Journal Today .

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