MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We turn now to a story of memory and loss. The war in Vietnam left its mark on a generation of Americans, from those fought the war to those who fought to end it. It's inspired films and novels and now an opera. Seattle Opera is presenting the world premiere of "Amelia." The piece examines the legacy of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a child left behind. Marcie Sillman of member station KUOW reports.

MARCIE SILLMAN: "Amelia" begins with goodbye. A man in a white military uniform sings a lullaby to his young daughter. He's shipping out for Vietnam.

(Soundbite of opera, "Amelia")

Unidentified Man #1 (Opera Singer): (Singing) I will be (unintelligible).

SILLMAN: Gardner McFall's father was a navy pilot who led bombing missions during the war. In 1966, when McFall was 14, her father was on a training mission off the California coast, preparing for his second tour of duty.

Ms. GARDNER McFALL (Poet, "The Pilot's Daughter"): He took off on a foggy night, in a storm, and the plane settled into the ocean. They lost radio contact with him, and he was never recovered. And so I've always wondered about what happened to him, as my younger brother did, who was only 9 when he died, and the question of, if your father is missing, might he not return? Might he not be found? And so that's something that I've lived with pretty much all my life.

SILLMAN: To deal with it, McFall started a series of poems when she was in her early 20s. They were published in 1996 as a book called "The Pilot's Daughter."

Ms. McFALL: One day I told myself he is not coming home, though I had no evidence, no grave, nothing to say a prayer over. I knew he was flying among the starry plankton, detained forever.

SILLMAN: At first, McFall wasn't sold on the idea of transforming her personal tragedy into an opera.

Ms. McFALL: I hesitated a bit. I'm a very controlled person, and that's the way I was raised. If you're in a military family, you learn how to control yourself, soldier on, rise to the occasion, all those good things.

SILLMAN: But McFall trusted her friend Daron Hagen, who was commissioned by Seattle Opera to come up with a new work. Hagen thought the poet would be the perfect librettist for "Amelia," a work named for the doomed flier Amelia Earhart, because the little girl whose name is also Amelia is McFall.

Mr. DARON HAGEN (Composer): Gardner has lived her life as a victim of, and a person who was exalted by, flight. Consequently, she'd be the ideal librettist because she could own this story because she had lived it inside herself.

SILLMAN: In the opera, a grown-up Amelia and her mother travel to the Vietnamese village where the opera's pilot was shot down and captured.

(Soundbite of opera, "Amelia")

Unidentified Man #2 (Opera Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman (Opera Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

SILLMAN: To prepare herself to write this scene, Gardner McFall made her first trip to Vietnam.

Ms. McFALL: It was a stressful trip. I didn't really talk to the people that I met in Vietnam about why I was there so much. But I saw the deep tragedy that this war was, not only from our side on the home front, which Amelia is about, but also from the Vietnamese standpoint.

(Soundbite of opera, "Amelia")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman (Opera Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

SILLMAN: Like McFall, Marie Tran has spent more than 30 years coming to grips with her Vietnam War experiences. Tran was just nine years old when she and her family fled from the advancing North Vietnamese Army. Tran's father worked for the South Vietnamese government.

Ms. MARIE TRAN: My father, of course, was at risk, and actually our entire family was at risk.

SILLMAN: Tran and her family took a small boat to an island off the coast, where they waited to get to Saigon.

Ms. TRAN: My grandmother decided that she wasn't going to join us for the rest of the trip. She said: I really want to live and die in my own country. And that was the last time I saw my grandmother, and that was the last time my mother saw her mother.

SILLMAN: Just six days before the fall of Saigon, in April 1975, Tran's family managed to leave Vietnam. She says she couldn't bear to return until just two years ago.

Ms. TRAN: In facing our memories and our past, whether it's pleasant or not, no matter whether you are veterans or Vietnamese refugees, you grieve. There's a grieving process that takes place. And it may take years to manage that, and each of us grieve and heal in a different way.

SILLMAN: Marie Tran now lives and teaches in Seattle. Gardner McFall lives in New York. She says when she started writing the libretto for "Amelia," she searched out people who knew her father, Dodge, to get a better sense of who he was. But for a pivotal aria, McFall turned to a treasured letter her father wrote to his family.

Ms. McFALL: If I am shot down and should eject, please know I will bear whatever lies ahead. If I am lost, do not despair. Keep faith. Go forward. Never forget how thankful I am and how happy you have made me.

(Soundbite of opera, "Amelia")

Unidentified Man #3 (Opera Singer): (Singing) You deserve every good thing in life, especially love.

Ms. McFALL: Although my book of poems was an elegy to him, it's still a book of poems. And this opera will potentially go out into the world. And anytime his name is sung, his name will be there on the air. And it will live.

(Soundbite of opera, "Amelia")

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) I love you always, Dodge.

SILLMAN: It's the goodbye Gardner McFall never got to say to her father.

For NPR News, I'm Marcie Sillman in Seattle.

NORRIS: And you can hear more music from the opera and hear the librettist, Gardner McFall, read one of her poems at our website. That's npr.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.