In April 2013, Theatre Professor Sheila Hickey Garvey served as theater director for the Greater Middletown Chorale’s (GMChorale) production of Letter from Italy, 1944, a dramatic oratorio comprised of 24 choral and solo pieces, performed by the 80 members of the chorale. The oratorio told the true story of one man’s experiences during wartime. In addition to serving on Southern’s faculty, Garvey is resident director of the GMChorale.
On June 18 at 8 p.m., a new documentary about the oratorio will premiere on Connecticut Public Television (CPTV). Commissioned by the GMChorale, the film explores the effects of war on a soldier and on his relationships with his family through the lens of staging a new American oratorio. Narrated by Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, the film was directed by five-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Karyl Evans (left), niece of Southern’s Hilton C. Buley and formerly a member of the Communication Department faculty.
“Letter from Italy’s ties to SCSU go deep,” says Garvey. She adds that the project is especially meaningful to her not only because of the veteran’s story but also it served “as a capstone sort of project in my professional directing career.”
The film Letter from Italy takes viewers on the journey of the creation of an oratorio written by two sisters, Sarah Meneely-Kyder and Nancy Meneely, about their father, Dr. John K. Meneely Jr., a doctor trained at Yale Medical School (1941) who served as a medic in the elite 10th Mountain Division during World War II. He returned home from war in Italy with post-traumatic stress disorder and tried to rebuild his life.
Meneely-Kyder, a Grammy-nominated composer, and Nancy Meneely, a noted poet, both Connecticut residents, wrote the compelling two-hour oratorio in collaboration with GMChorale Artistic Director Joseph D’Eugenio of Hamden.
Evans, a North Haven resident and owner of Karyl Evans Productions LLC, says of the story, “Everything about this project is compelling: the story of Yale-trained Dr. Meneely and his family, the impressive accomplishments of the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, and the breathtaking quality of the lyrics and music in the oratorio.”
“Karyl Evans’ enormous gifts as a storyteller and filmmaker are palpable through the tone and atmosphere she creates in telling this powerful story about an American soldier’s struggle with PTSD,” D’Eugenio says of the documentary.
“We are so pleased to be able to premiere such a unique and creative program on CPTV,” says Carol Sisco, vice president and executive director of television programming and acquisitions for the CPTV networks. “This documentary showcases the talents of local artists and allows us to share an important story with our viewers.”
The film tells the history of the 10th Mountain Division — still active today — and the life of John Meneely, and then follows the creative process of the writing of the oratorio’s lyrics (which are based on Dr. Meneely’s poetic letters home from war) and music, as well as the staging of the oratorio by theater director Garvey and the intensive rehearsal process with the GMChorale’s 80 members and the soloists, including tenor Jack Anthony Pott and Metropolitan Opera soprano Patricia Schuman.
The film uses interviews with the creators, singers, three World War II 10th Mountain Division veterans, historians, audience members, community participants and other veterans, as well as archival photos and film, to weave together a compelling story about a veteran and his family and the way a shared artistic experience can help heal the trauma of war.
The film Letter from Italy, also commissioned by the GMC, was made possible with the major support of the state DECD/Connecticut Office of the Arts.
Photo below: Garvey (center, in blue dress) and the composers, director and cast of Letters from Italy, 1944, take a bow at the oratorio’s 2013 production.