War Letters Inspire Oratorio, New Film

“Every generation is affected by war and its aftermath” narrates Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, as her mellifluous voice introduces a new film by five-time Emmy Award winner and local film maker Karyl Evans.

DAVID SEPULVEDA PHOTOEvans recently presented Letter from Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio at the Whitney Humanities Center, afterward moderating a riveting panel discussion on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on veterans and their families, and what is being done to improve the lives of those affected by it.

DAVID SEPULVEDA PHOTOCommissioned by GMChorale — formerly the Greater Middletown Chorale — the one-hour documentary follows the creation of an oratorio, a full-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, written by two sisters from Connecticut: Sarah Meneely-Kyder, a Grammy-nominated composer, and Nancy Meneely, a noted poet and lyricist. The oratorio is based on their father’s impassioned letters, poems, and short stories sent home from the war in Italy to their mother, and conveyed to Nancy Meneely fifty years later in 1995. 

The sheave of her father’s poignant letters moved Nan Meneely to respond creatively, with her own words, and soon after Sarah Meenely-Kyder began to put those words to music as the sisters sought to give voice to both the beauty and tragedy of their father’s life.

“What I felt as I read those love letters from my father to my mother,” said Nan Meneely in the documentary, “was the innocence of the man who went into battle and the developing horror of war in that same man.”

A doctor trained at Yale Medical School — he finished in 1941 — John K. Meneely, Jr. served as a medic in the elite 10th Mountain Division during World War II, returning home from the war in Italy in 1945 suffering the corrosive and little-understood symptoms of PTSD, a diagnostic term that would be coined decades later.

Struggling to rebuild his life, Dr. Meneely was unable to reconcile his trauma in relationships with his family and medical career. He tragically ended his own life 18 years later at the age of 46.

Composer Sarah Meneely came to know Meryl Streep while both were students at Yale. She sometimes played piano for Streep’s performances, according to Evans.

“They hadn’t talked for a long time but after Sarah wrote her a note about the project we heard from Meryl very quickly that her answer to narrating the documentary was yes,” Evans said. “The narration session was scheduled in February for New Haven and Meryl arrived in a blinding snow storm driving herself — no driver, no assistant. She walked into the recording session herself and was so prepared that we had the entire narration for the one hour documentary done in about two hours.”

The documentary, which uses vintage photographs and historical film sequences, recent interviews, and also provides behind-the-scenes footage of the oratorio’s creation as the creative collaboration widened to include artistic director Joseph D’Eugenio and the Greater Middletown Chorale vocalists and musicians.

The Panel Discussion

During a panel discussion moderated by Evans about the film and the Meneely family, the two sisters spoke in public for the first time about the effects of their father’s PTSD on the family. They recalled, in vivid details, the difficulties of trying to have a relationship with their father after the war. 

Two veterans on the panel — Adrian Bonenberger, a retired captain from the 10th Mountain Division, Afghanistan, and Amy Otzel, retired sergeant (Iraq), U.S. Army, a behavioral health specialist who recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD — shared their insights into what war requires of soldiers, often leading to irreconcilable conflicts in their moral codes. 

The panel also included three trauma specialists: Laurie Harkness, founder and director of the Errera Community Care Center at the VA Hospital in West Haven; Hadar Lubin, co-director of the Post Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven; and Evie Lindemann, art therapist and associate professor/clinical coordinator of the Art Therapy Program at Albertus Magnus College. Together, the panelists helped the audience understand more about the burden of trauma on soldiers and their families when they return home from war.

Lindemann expounded on the healing power of the arts, explaining the natural linking of pain and beauty in using the arts to transform trauma. “The arts,” she said, “connect us with the larger fabric of the human family, helping to transform that which is often lost.”

Evans noted that she continues to do screenings of Letter from Italy, 1944 documentary for veterans’ groups and would like to find funding to produce screenings with panel discussions around the state and nationally. The video can be purchased for $20. The filmmaker is also editing together the two-hour concert video of Letter from Italy, 1944 with preliminary plans for the full concert to be shown on CPTV in May 2016.

Letter from Italy, 1944 DVD is available here,  concert DVDs are available here. 
Copies of Nan Meneely’s book of poetry, Letter from Italy, 1944, with CD, can be ordered here.
 Contact for film screenings and Karyl Evans can be made here.

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