Thomas Segen as Tancredi, playing the Romeo figure in this star-crossed tale of woe.
Thomas Segen as Tancredi, the Romeo figure in this star-crossed (and super-relevant!) tale of woe. Philip Newton

Ushers were standing on Terry Avenue to show the crowd where we needed to go. They directed us into a big box building, as tall as an IKEA warehouse and about as picturesque: cement walls, endless shelves of pallets, bare blaring lights along a cement floor. It wasn’t cold, but it seemed like it ought to be. I kept on my coat and headed for the bar.

We were inside the Seattle Opera’s rehearsal studio, which had been transformed into a performance space for the short run of The Combat, a chamber opera created from two works by Monteverdi, composer of L’Orfeo (1607), one of the earliest pieces of music to be considered an opera, and also one by Couperin, who lived about 100 years after Monteverdi. Grammy-winning conductor of Boston Early Music Ensemble and artistic director of Pacific Music Works, Stephen Stubbs, led the seven-person orchestra, and the cast of five consisted mostly of young singers making their Seattle Opera debuts.

The Combat tells the story of a Muslim woman named Clorinda (Tess Altiveros) and Christian man named Tancredi (Thomas Segen) who fall in love during the Crusades. And, well…you’ve seen West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet, you know that stories of lovers from warring worlds do not end happily. What will surprise you, though, is how intimate and deeply affecting this even older (11th century) story of star-crossed lovers is.

Tess Altiveros as Clorinda, ready to rumble.
Tess Altiveros as Clorinda, ready to rumble. Philip Newton

After we moved down the Costco-like corridor, we were given little coaster-like thingies marked with either a cross or a crescent. You are what you’re given; your identity as a Christian or Muslim is handed to you.

We were led by more ushers from the airplane hanger to a room the size of a one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill. The audience ringed around the room, our backs to the wall, while a guy (Eric Neuville) wearing a taqiyah and holding a lantern walked around as if he were looking for someone. He pulled a man from among us, and then a woman. From how those two were dressed, you wouldn’t have gathered they were in the cast.

Once they were removed from the crowd, they looked at each other the way you look the first time you see the person you know you want to spend your life with. They're so in love, and so immediately, that they don’t even need to tell each other their names. They’re happy, delirious for a while, and we were right there, with them, only a few feet away, as if we were spying on someone's first date. It was almost embarrassing.

Ye olde surprisingly successful Tinder date between religious warriors of opposing sides.
Ye olde surprisingly successful Tinder date between religious warriors of opposing factions. Philip Newton

Everything about this production is designed to break down whatever perceptions you may have about the grandness of opera; this one is all about intimacy.

When left alone, Tancredi and Clorinda can happily be in love, but when they meet on the battlefield—one a Christian, the other a Muslim (and yes, a female in combat!) wearing armor that disguises them—the Sharks and the Jets rumble and someone dies.

As I mentioned earlier, the music and the love story from these first two parts come from Monteverdi. The third part (“act” is too strong a word) is taken from Couperin’s setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. This lament is not only for a city lost in the crusades (or one of the many historic sacks of Jerusalem), but the very specific grief of a man for a woman he has loved and inadvertently killed. You stand a few feet away from someone who’s mourning the death of the person he loved.

"Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?"

"Look and see if there is sorrow like my sorrow," sopranos Linda Tsatsanis and Danielle Sampson sang as they laid a silky white funeral cloth over the body.

The body being buried was not only Clorinda's, but a stand-in for every Muslim or Christian killed during the Crusades back when and now. When the music stopped, we stood there in stunned silence, the way you would at a funeral, the way you may have stood at Mark Mitchell’s exhibit of clothing for burial at the Frye Art Museum’s exhibit. No one could say anything for a while.

Then, before we could applaud or speak, we were led out of the room where the music stopped. There was gravitas and anguish in the air. And only when I was outside again did I remember that the grief I had just been part of was not my private sorrow, but something brought forth by art.

With this remarkable production of The Combat, visionary director Dan Wallace Miller and his cast transformed not only the Seattle Opera rehearsal building, but also my heart. This is a profound experience of theater.