Film based on Lyme woman’s oratorio honors her father, who suffered from PTSD

Composer/pianist Sarah Meneely-Kyder of Lyme(Tim Martin/The Day)
Composer/pianist Sarah Meneely-Kyder of Lyme(Tim Martin/The Day)

Sarah Meneely-Kyder saw death in her father's eyes long before he picked a fight with her mother, packed his doctor's bag and headed off to his office to commit suicide.

"I begged him not leave," Meneely-Kyder recalled in an interview this month at her comfortable country home on Grassy Hill Road in Lyme.

She was a senior in high school when the handsome and sensitive Dr. John Meneely stormed out the door on March 21, 1963, to overdose on prescription medications at the Albany Medical Center Hospital, where he practiced internal medicine.

Her dad, an alcoholic, was the victim of post-traumatic stress syndrome from his World War II days as a medic and surgeon with the elite 10th Mountain Division that famously scaled the Alps on skis to fight the Nazis.

"It was devastating," Meneely-Kyder said of her father's suicide. "For years, I just stamped it down. Then it began to resurface."

And what has surfaced over the past two decades, starting with the poetry of sister Nancy Meneely of Guilford that resurrected her father's memory based on letters he sent home during WWII, has since been transformed into an oratorio written by Meneely-Kyder and, later, a documentary narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep.

The documentary, released in 2015 as "Letter from Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio" and initially aired on Connecticut Public Television, will have its first showing in the region next week.

The one-hour documentary by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Karyl Evans, based on interviews with the Meneely sisters, veterans from the 10th Mountain Division and a performance of the oratorio by the Greater Middletown Chorale, will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Meneely-Kyder.

Meneely-Kyder, for more than two decades a member of the music faculty at Wesleyan University, said the long march toward the documentary started with her sister's poetry, which she found so moving she set one piece to music, a 2003 song that was nominated for a Grammy Award. A decade later, she connected with Joseph D'Eugenio, artistic director of the Greater Middletown Chorale, who had the idea of commissioning an oratorio based on her father's story.

The chorale also commissioned the making of the documentary. It was up to Meneely-Kyder, however, to find a narrator.

"We really needed a big deal to narrate this," she said.

Meneely-Kyder, as it turned out, had an ace in the hole, having developed a rapport with Streep during frequent performances at the Yale School of Drama, where she recalls often coming in to quell potential cabaret disasters.

So she wrote Streep a six-page letter by email imploring her to narrate the piece, focusing on the universal message of veterans returning from war with PTSD. About three weeks later, when Meneely-Kyder had just about given up hope, Streep wrote back to say she would be delighted to help out, donating her services.

"She's a real citizen of the world," Meneely-Kyder said of Streep, who drove up from New York City by herself to record her narration at a New Haven sound studio.

According to Meneely-Kyder, her father John started showing psychological discomfort about what he witnessed during the war, but it wasn't until five years later that he had a complete mental breakdown. Still, he managed to hold it together most of the time, going into depression, however, whenever he lost a patient.

"He tried so hard to be a wonderful dad," Meneely-Kyder recalled. "He was absolutely revered by his patients."

After her father's death, Meneely-Kyder went on to Goucher College to study piano and composition, then did graduate work at the Yale Peabody School of Music, being exposed to and ultimately rejecting atonal music, finding it unsatisfactory.

Meneely-Kyder said she composes pieces the old-fashioned way, starting with the melody first.

"I'm an honest composer," she said. "I do not compose on the computer."

When writing her oratorio, titled the same as the movie, she said she took the tougher pieces first, the ones leading up to her father's suicide. The piece is written for an orchestra, full chorus and five soloists.

"Composers are imitators of life — and close imitators," Meneely-Kyder said.


If you go

What: Showing of the documentary "Letter from Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio," followed by a question-and-answer session with Meneely-Kyder.

When: 12:30-2 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Community Room of the Old Lyme-Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, 2 Library Lane, Old Lyme

Cost: Free, but reservations can be made at (860) 434-5999

Sponsor: Exencial Wealth Advisors of Old Lyme


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