Sarah Meneely-KyderComposer/Pianist

Letter from Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio

U.S. Veterans today number 23 million. Nearly 30% may suffer from PTSD that engulfs their families, co-workers, caregivers and communities. This is a complex national issue requiring in-depth conversation. “For every soldier killed in combat, 25 veterans are dying by suicide. It’s time to broaden efforts against PTSD,” wrote Robert M. Morgenthau (September 24, 2012, WSJ)

Letter from Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio, narrated by Meryl Streep, is just such an effort, an artistic and cultural approach toward transformation so that people and families can thrive. This one-hour documentary tells the compelling story of the creation of a new American oratorio, set against the backdrop of the history of the elite 10th Mountain Division’s successful assault against the enemy during WWII, the Meneely family as they waited for their father and husband to return from battle, and the aftermath of war involving PTSD and suicide.

The film includes interviews with the principal creative team who wrote, staged, directed and performed in the world premiere of the new Letter from Italy, 1944 oratorio. Footage from the premiere will be included in the film as the creative team describes the making of this significant two-hour work. Veterans from the 10th Mountain Division were interviewed along with recently returning veterans to demonstrate the continuing relevancy of the challenges of going to war on individuals and their families. The film will also include an overview history of the 10th Mountain Division to give context to the extraordinary individuals involved in this impressive group of men.

Documentation of the Letter from Italy, 1944 project explores how this story of every soldier touches today’s military, their families, caregivers, neighbors, co-workers and ultimately everyone. It records the manner in which music, theater, story telling and photography become powerful vehicles that communicate and break through social and personal barriers, informing while releasing emotions and thoughts, enabling people to connect and heal.

Setting the Scene

Grammy-nominee composer Sarah Meneely-Kyder collaborates with her sister Nancy Meneely to write a musical drama about the wartime experiences of their father John K. Meneely Jr., a WWII medic. Nancy bases her lyrics on his poetic letters home. At 28, the physician witnessed some of Italy’s fiercest battles. Then, for 18 years following the war, he and his family coped with his PTSD in a battle that he eventually lost.

The Greater Middletown Chorale (GMC), the region’s leading semi-pro chorus, commissions the work in 2011. Consultation takes place with state and local veterans, and local, Yale and National PTSD Center medical personnel. Collaborating with the GMC’s Artistic Director Joseph D’Eugenio, assisted by Southern Connecticut State University’s Chair of Theater, the Meneely sisters create a two-hour modern oratorio for chorus, soloists and orchestra: Letter from Italy, 1944.

Next, the GMC’s 80 singers commence rehearsals. Six of Connecticut’s finest professional soloists and 29 of its best professional instrumentalists join for the World Premiere in Middletown on April 28, 2013 before a capacity audience of 700. Professional lighting, visual archival media projections and semi-staging under professional theatrical direction enhance the production.

To aid understanding of the oratorio and its themes of war’s effects, PTSD, love and family, the audience and performers have been prepared with six Connecticut Community Conversation events held for months before this concert.

5-time Emmy Award–winning documentary filmmaker Karyl Evans records all the activity as it takes place:

One-Hour Documentary Script Outline

Setting the Stage:

Narrator Opens: Visual and Musical Montage:
Title Sequence/Music
Family History
10th Mountain Division History
10th Mountain Division Veterans
Medical & Therapist views
Local Veteran; Recent Returnee from Iraq

Creating the Oratorio:

Professor of Music and American Studies

Producing the Oratorio:

Artistic Director, GMC
GMC Board Members
Theater Director

The Rehearsal Process: GMC Artistic Director

The Meneelys’ first hearing of their music
Various Chorale singers
Professional soloists – one an international soloist (Metropolitan Opera, Glimmerglass)

Talk about CD recording included in Nancy Meneely’s newly published poetry book, Letter from Italy, 1944 (Antrim House Books, Simsbury, CT)

Ji-Youn Chang: Lighting and Visual Designer

Lighting and video design’s impact on performers’ and audience’s experience.
Orchestra’s Concert Master

Community Conversation Events:

Medical History of PTSD lecture
Composer & Lyricist’s Workshop
Lyricist’s Poetry Reading
10th Mountain Division Historian

Clips of Performance

Interviews with primary creative team pre- and post-performance

Music/Poet Writers and Critics:
Music Community Members:
Community Members