The chief players involved in making "Letter from Italy, 1944" a reality:
Joyce Kirkpatrick GMC Development Chair; Sheila Hickey Garvey, Professor of Theatre at SCSU and Resident Director of the Greater Middletown Chorale (GMC); Joseph D'Eugenio, Artistic Director GMC and Letter from Italy's Conductor; Nancy Meneely, Poet and Lyricist; Sarah Meneely-Kyder, Composer: and Dawn Alger GMC's Concert and Events Manager.
Call it " a soldier's story told in music," " dramatic oratorio," "a moving opera" or "two sisters' loving tribute to their father," "Letter from Italy, 1944" tells the true tale of one man's experiences during wartime. It is at the same time a personal and private story and also universal in its scope.
Dr. John K. Meneely, Jr. was a member of the 10th Mountain Division, an elite and unique unit trained as a ski patrol to fight in winter and mountain warfare. As a medic, John was called upon to witness and provide aid in numerous difficult and painful situations, not the least of which was losing his best friend Billy, killed just one week before the Armistice was declared.
The trauma of wartime doesn't end when peace is finally achieved and guns are laid down and abandoned. It lingers and invades the soul for close to eternity for some. Labelled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it sends a dark shadow over the future days, days that should be marked by sunshine.
Dr. Meneely's daughters, one a poet and one a composer, have lovingly dedicated years of their lives to sharing their father's story, using his letters home from war as the foundation. They could be any soldier's story. Connecticut residents, poet Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely from Guilford and Grammy-nominated composer Sarah Meneely-Kyder from Lyme, will proudly debut this major musical drama "Letter from Italy, 1944," a work comprised of 24 choral and solo pieces, on Sunday, April 28 at 4 p.m. at the Middletown High School Center for the Performing Arts, 200 LaRosa Lane, Middletown.
The 80 strong members of the Greater Middletown Chorale, led by Artistic Director Joseph D'Eugenio, will be accompanied by a professional orchestra. The principal soloists are Jack Anthony Pott from South Windsor as John Meneely, Patricia Schuman from Essex as his wife Delia, Patricia Barbano from Branford as daughter Sarah, Sheri Hammerstrom from New York City as daughter Nancy and Margaret Tyler from Pawcatuck as daughter Dorothea. In addition, John's parents will be portrayed by Katie Hart from Rocky Hill and Michael O'Herron from Middletown.
For Dr. Sheila Hickey Garvey, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, who serves as the Chorale's Theater Director, " It has been a privilege to be a part of the creative team for "Letter from Italy, 1944." It was just about three years ago that Sarah and Nancy Meneely presented the GMC with the germinating ideas to further develop some already completed short musical pieces based on their father's letters home during WWII. I was instantly committed to helping their endeavor come to life on the stage. All the men in my family have served in the military during times of war and during periods of international conflict. "Letter From Italy, 1944" became my opportunity to honor them. The men in my family have all been exceptionally brave individuals of great integrity. The fact that what has developed is this larger, grander operatic version of the Meneely sisters' original idea is nothing short of amazing – and I mean the word Amazing as a gift of spiritual grace. I only hope audiences give themselves the opportunity to experience this locally written and produced masterwork. It seems to me that everyone has at least one soldier they have loved and admired. Seeing "Letter from Italy, 1944" is a way to pay tribute to all of America's military and also their loving, supportive families."
Dr. Garvey is also responsible for all the technical efforts and the projection of WWII archival projections that will accompany the piece and enhance its effectiveness and message.
For Jack Anthony Pott, playing Dr. John Meneely is simply "the role of a lifetime." He has been involved in the project since December 2011 when his good friend from graduate school at the University of Connecticut, the chorale's artistic director Joseph D'Eugenio, told him about it. Since that time, Pott has immersed himself in the music, researching PTSD by talking to veterans, investigating the 10th Mountain Division, even speaking directly to the sisters, and all before he was given the part.
His wife thought the role was perfect for him, combining as it does many of his loves: music, history, genealogy and United States military history. He wanted to understand the mindset of the soldier and, passionate to be fully prepared for the role, read all the letters Dr. Meneely had written home. He found them "awe inspiring" and calls this production a "new, major work" that he is passionate about presenting to "raise the public consciousness about the issues in the story."
For Pott, this is more than an oratorio, because it involves costumes, stage movement, visuals and interaction, so you see the story as well as hear it. When he was finally chosen to play this central figure, he felt privileged to portray a man who could not leave the war behind him when he returned home to his family and couldn't cope. The tragedy is that for the following eighteen years he used alcohol and medications to treat his depression, until in despair he took his own life.
For Nancy, the poet daughter, the experience of putting together both the book and the oratorio has "broadened my awareness of the workings and efforts of war, past and present, and deepened my appreciation of how hard it can be to come home from the battlefield. I understand now that my father fought two wars, the one he waged overseas and the one he fought against its aftermath. I know now that he was heartbreakingly heroic not only in his first war but also in the second. I've always loved him, of course, but what I feel for him now is something even deeper, love mixed with sympathy, admiration, understanding - and gratitude beyond words."
Her book of poetry "Letter from Italy, 1944" (Publisher, Antrim House) chronicles in lyrical and emotional verse, with photos and explanations, her father's journey through the battlefields of war and the equally difficult landscapes at home. She writes with bittersweet insight into what he faced. Her sister Sarah has taken many of these missives and set them to music enhancing their poignancy. From the first song, a newly born John hears his father singing "Oh, The Sweetie Man," to songs of battle like "Riva Ridge" where he is "fight(ing) the clutch of memory and fear," to "Boots" where he relives the loss of best friend Billy, to the final despair that takes him as a "solitary man who has loved the best he can" in "In the End He Can Do No More."
For Sarah, the composer, "It has been an amazing challenge to write "Letter from Italy, 1944," an oratorio that engages large chorus, five professional soloists and orchestra. Rarely have I had such an opportunity. I've learned so much musically in the process of the writing. I've also learned so much about my father through the writing, and I have a much deeper understanding of him and the extreme duress that he must have experienced both during and after the war prior to his death. I feel him alive in me.
"I feel greatly honored to have been commissioned by the Greater Middletown Chorale to "Letter from Italy, 1944" as Composer-in-Residence. I consider this chorus the equal of all the noted professional choruses in Connecticut. I applaud the chorale for its willingness to take chances, delving into repertoire that has rarely or never been heard! Maestro Joseph D'Eugenio is able to balance high expectations with warmth and charisma, and, as a result, has brought the group to a high level of musicianship, given its stunning and consistent readiness to fulfill all that is asked.
"At the heart of this group is a warmth and breadth of spirit, rare and contagious, by which I feel embraced in all my interactions and undertakings. I thank all of you deeply for your unstinting support. This is indeed a cherishing."
While the April 28th performance is sold out, the Chorale has added a Preview Performance on Friday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m.. For tickets ($30 seniors, general admission $35), go online to Ticket Leap at www.letterfromitaly.com or at the box office one hour before curtain. The Preview Performance is a complete run through in costume and with movement. There may be breaks to correct technical issues. Stand-by tickets for the Sunday show, if available, will be released on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. An Honor Roll tribute for military veterans will be included in the program.
Immerse yourself in the conflicted life of one soldier, Dr John Meneely, Jr., and learn the costs of war on and off the battlefield in this loving tribute by two daughters for their father in the world premiere of "Letter from Italy, 1944."