Opera Philadelphia

Soldier Songs Director's Note

By Johnathan McCullough

My fiancée works in the field of psychiatry and I greatly admire how she helps individuals on a daily basis, many of whom are marginalized by society. The words “that person is crazy” are thrown around in our vernacular frequently, and the trouble is that terminology like this tends to dehumanize and stigmatize those living with mental illness. 

Mental illness manifests itself in a multitude of ways. Sure, it is easy to tell that someone on crutches or walking around with oxygen is suffering, but people who live with mental illness often do so in silence. There is a stigma that goes along with mental health in the United States, and this is particularly true with veterans. 

Pride in being patriotic and serving our country is ingrained in us from a young age in everything from the shows we watch to the toys we play with as children. For those who bravely choose to serve and engage in combat, the reality of war poses a startling contrast to the heroic narrative we were brought up to believe. 

According to a 2015 Washington Post article, the United States has been at war for more than 64 percent of my lifetime, and anyone born in the last 20 years has not experienced any time of their life where the United States was not at war. War is woven into the DNA of our country and we are conditioned as a society to see war as a natural byproduct of life.

My grandfather was a World War II veteran and was lucky enough to return home, but not all are so fortunate. Many veterans who are welcomed back to our shores carry with them the tolls of war, both physical and psychological, for the remainder of their lives. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder plays a large role in the psychological results of war and other traumatic experiences. 

A key symptom of PTSD includes having flashbacks of traumatic experiences. An example of this phenomenon is when someone hears fireworks and is brought back to the mental state they were in while fighting overseas, thinking they are hearing gunshots. Sometimes this goes a step further and people can enter a dissociative state where they lose touch with reality and may feel as if they are watching their life play out as if it were a movie. Both can be incredibly distressing to the person experiencing them.

David T. Little’s Soldier Songs assembles stories from multiple veterans, finding commonalities between them. In the movie these stories are told through the lens of one man who having been raised with these toys and video games, decides to enlist into the military. I chose to interpret the piece in a way that focuses on bringing visibility to the long term mental health effects that war can potentially have on individuals. In my opinion, it is an issue that is largely unseen and misunderstood in American society.

Although I can’t administer therapy in an effort to help people, I can tell their stories and hopefully de-stigmatize what it is like to live with mental health issues while spreading awareness of this silent condition.

I’m a firm believer that, as art mirrors society, it has a responsibility to bring about awareness as well as to entertain. 

I hope you enjoy the movie. 


Johnathan McCullough is the director and star of Soldier Songs, which premieres on the Opera Philadelphia Channel on January 22, 2021.

Leave your comment below.

Chat with Guest Services