Saturday, April 15, 2017
THE MUSICAL TELLING OF ONE SOLDIER’S STORY: " LETTER FROM ITALY, 1944"
NANCY FITZ-HUGH MENEELY
Imagine you are one of two young daughters whose father
goes off to war and comes home a man neither one of you recognizes. He has changed dramatically and no matter how hard the sisters try they cannot reach into his heart and soul to find the daddy he once was. As a medic, he fought to save lives as a member of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II and he traveled, on skis, in the treacherous hills during winter to save soldiers' lives.
This is the story of two sisters, Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely, a poet from Guilford and Sarah Meneely-Kyder, a composer from Lyme, whose father Dr. John K. Meneely, Jr. suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Witnessing so much wartime tragedy, including losing his best friend one week before the Armistice was declared, left him with dark shadows that he could not erase.
Years after he committed suicide, his daughters found a packet of the letters he sent home and began to understand the traumas that their father endured and could not escape. They have woven them into a stirring tribute to him that will be given a spectacular production at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Call it " a soldier's story told in music," “ a 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.
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. 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.
“Letter from Italy 1944” was first performed in Middletown in 2013 and will now be expanded to include the Hartford Chorale in addition to the original GM Chorale(Greater Middletown Chorale), again under the leadership of Artistic Director Joseph D'Eugenio, and will be accompanied by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Alan Mann, Artistic Director of Opera theater of Connecticut, will direct and design the production that will be enhanced by video projections.
Seeing "Letter from Italy, 1944" is a way to pay tribute to all of America's military and also their loving, supportive families. Suicides by soldiers and the incidence of alcohol and substance abuse as well as emotional instability and homelessness underscore the need for greater understanding and the pressing responsibility to address the complex problems faced by returning veterans.
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" into "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 write lyrics for '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.” Go to www.bushnell.org for tickets ($25-60).
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 newest iteration of "Letter from Italy, 1944."