Taking center stage
By Sandy Coleman
One day in 1966 Gardner McFall’s life changed forever. Though it has been 43 years, she can vividly recall the moment as if she were living it now:
She is 14 years old. She is at school in Jacksonville,Fla., leaving gym, rushing to her next class. She spots her mother and her mother’s friend walking toward her on a pleasantly-warm-for-December day. Surprised and excited that her mother has come to visit her at school, she throws her arms around her.
Why Are You Here? McFall asks.
Her mom responds: “We’ve come to get you because your father is missing.”
McFall’s Navy pilot father’s plane went down over the Pacific on a foggy night in December 1966. He was readying his squadron for a second tour of duty in Vietnam. Albert Dodge McFall’s body was never recovered.
The loss of her father has had such a profound effect throughout her life that McFall wrote a book of poetry about the experience called The Pilot’s Daughter. Now that book is the inspiration for a libretto she has written for Seattle Opera. The libretto (the text of an opera) is both based on her life and includes real elements taken directly from it.
The opera company, under general director Speight Jenkins, commissioned her to write the libretto for the two-hour American opera Amelia, which has flight as a theme and is believed to be the first opera to deal with the Vietnam War experience. It will have its world premiere in Seattle in May 2010. The University of Washington Press will commercially publish McFall’s libretto as a book, which is seldom done, according to Marilyn Trueblood, press managing editor.
Also the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation this summer awarded Seattle Opera a $500,000 grant in support of Amelia. The grant, a first-of-its-kind initiative designed to support the production of new contemporary opera, will allow other American opera companies to produce Amelia after its premiere.
This is the first time since 1983 that Seattle Opera has commissioned an opera. And this is the first libretto that McFall, an award-winning poet and children’s book author, has written. It has been challenging and exciting to work in a new genre, she says. The biggest challenge has been offering up her emotional journey and personal history on a stage for all to see, hear and feel.
The libretto is about the love of a daughter for a father who has been out of her life longer than he was in it. Beyond that, ultimately, McFall says, “the story is about loss and the pain of loss and how the risk of love in the face of loss can compensate over time. There is are restorative power in the world. This opera is about death and it’s about rebirth.”
On the dining room table in her Upper West Side apartment in New York City, the pieces of McFall’s creative life are spread out. There is her recently published book of poems, Russian Tortoise (Time Being Books, 2009); The Pilot’s Daughter; and the galley proofs for the libretto that will be published.
She is most excited right now about the proofs, which have just arrived in the mail. “So it’s really happening after so many years,” she says, flipping through the pages of the libretto that she was first approached to write in 2005 for the 2010 premiere. “Five years of my life. It has been really interesting. It has been compelling in ways that I couldn’t have imagined at the start. That’s because a lot of it deals with personal material and personal history that I thought I had finished with because I had written The Pilot’s Daughter.”
But there likely is no “finish” to the experience that has shaped her life and inspired some of her most intriguing creative work.
“My father’s absence was stronger than any presence could have been. Of course, I’d rather have had him here than not have him,” she says, pausing. “That’s a great source of sadness—that he has not been here for my wedding, the birth of my daughter, my daughter’s graduation. But his absence was a powerful force that I didn’t understand even until I was in my 30s.”
Throughout her life she has tried to please him and make him proud. Because of the extensive research required in working on the libretto, McFall has come to understand “Dodge” in a way she might have had she gotten to know him when she was an adult.
She describes him as a handsome, athletic and outgoing man of impressive faith who was equally loved by children and adults. As she talks about him, she is reminded of one of the last photos that was taken of him. She leaves the room and returns with it.
“He was incredibly supportive of me, even though I only had him for 14 years,” she says. “He always had high expectations of me.
“Shortly before he went back for the second tour of duty from which he didn’t return, we were walking on the beach in Virginia Beach, and he said something that I thought was odd at the time. He said, ‘Make sure if you ever decide to marry, marry someone who is at least as smart as you are.’ At the time I thought what a weird thing for daddy to say. Why on earth is he telling me this? But I’ve always remembered it. I think he thought highly of me and he wanted me to achieve things. He felt that I could do whatever I wanted to do.”
And she has.
A French major at Wheaton, she has a master’s degree in writing from The John Hopkins University, and a doctorate in poetics and modern British literature from New York University. She has written two children’s books, Jonathan’s Cloud (Harper & Row) and Naming the Animals (Viking). She is an adjunct associate professor at Hunter College. And she recently celebrated her 30th wedding anniversary to a lawyer (a Yale alumnus) who has a master’s degree in French literature from NYU. Their daughter graduated from Cornell in May.
McFall got her first professional writing job as an editor of short stories at Ladies’ Home Journal in New York. That gave her an insider’s view of the publishing industry and contact with agents, editors and writers, who encouraged her to send her poetry to literary magazines for publication.
“I always knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was little,” says McFall, who was inspired by a children’s book author who visited her elementary school. “It was the first time I had ever seen a woman writer, so I began to think maybe I could be a writer.”
She credits Wheaton for informing her later developmentand work as a writer. “A broad grounding in the arts combined with close interaction with faculty made my time at Wheaton productive and memorable,” she says. “Wheaton afforded me the opportunity to study abroad in Paris and to do an independent creative writing project with Robert Taylor [a former Boston Globe book critic].”
He helped her to realize that perhaps she was better suited to write poetry than novels. “He was the first to point out that I would get my characters into a room and they would talk a lot, but nothing would happen. I’m very good on image and mood and the music of language and suggestions. All of those things come into play in poetry.
“Actually, making something happen in a story still eludes me. So that’s why poetry. I have a poet’s sensibility. Poetry is about concision. It’s about suggestiveness. Every word counts in a poem.”
Poetry and libretti are similar in that they have lyrical language, cadence and phrasing. Writing a libretto has been enjoyable for her because it is a freer process than poetry. In a libretto there is room for many different levels of language, including high lyric moments in which characters can really reveal themselves. In a poem you only suggest, McFall notes.
It was McFall’s poetry that first caught the attention of Seattle Opera composer Daron Hagen. He met her at an artist residency program in 1984 when he set one of her poems to music.
“Gardner’s poetry has for over two decades inspired me with its quiet strength, its fierce emotions—so carefully managed—and its absolute eschewing of ‘hand of author’ flights,” Hagen says.
So when the subject matter of the new opera emerged, he knew the perfect person to ask to write the libretto, which inspires the musical score.
“It is extremely hard to find a good librettist,” Hagen notes. “To me, choosing a librettist is about marrying the perfect writer/dramaturge to the perfect story, not just for them, but for me as well. If the librettist is strong enough to allow herself to serve the drama, as the composer must be strong enough to let the characters sing not the music he wants them to sing but the music they tell him they mustsing, then it is a perfect collaboration.”
Jenkins, Seattle Opera general director, says he too has enjoyed his collaboration with McFall. He describes her libretto as”beautiful writing, evocative, musical in its cadences.”
“What has meant the most to me,” he says,”is the sense that she really cares about everyone with whom she comes in contact. I am very impressed that she went to Vietnam and relived all the pain of her father’s disappearance and death in order to make this libretto.”
In September 2006, McFall traveled to Vietnam to do research because one scene in the opera is set there and is sung in Vietnamese.
“I wanted to see the landscape [my father] talked about and I wanted to hear the language, and I wanted to meet the people. I thought maybe that would bring closure to me because I knew a lot of vets who had served had gone back to Vietnam.”
Ironically, many members of the military and vets came to watch the opera-in-progress during a 10-day workshop held in Seattle last spring. The public was invited to offer feedback. Judging from the reactions,they could feel her pain.
“I found that what I had written actually moved people to tears,” she says.
McFall never cried during the workshop. That didn’t seem professional. She would months later, when what she had written truly sank in.
The libretto tells the story of a woman in her 30s who is about to give birth to her first child. The character is still traumatized by the loss of her father during the Vietnam War. Before she can move forward and have the baby, she has to come to terms with her grief-the fact that she never had a last conversation with her father, no closure. During the course of the opera, she falls into a coma that lasts for several days and dreams that her father has come back and is talking to her. In the dream, he reads a letter.
As McFall talks about the protagonist (Amelia) in theopera, she is also talking about herself. McFall has never fallen into a coma, but the emotional truth of the opera is hers.
The letter in the opera is a compilation of four different real “last letters” that McFall’s father wrote to his family before his plane went down. In the military, such letters were written and delivered in the event of death. She distilled the letters into an aria known as the “letter aria.”
“It was very moving to hear the singers in the workshop sing my father’s words, so in effect bring him back to life in a way for which I wasn’t prepared,” she says. “That was profoundly moving and something I couldn’t have expected when I started out on this adventure.”
Although McFall was nervous about putting her life on public display because her mother (who died in 2000) taught her and her younger brother to be private people, she is happy. The story is now separate from her and addresses larger issues.
“Although it is rooted in specifics of the Vietnam conflict, it also speaks to war and what happens in war,” she says.”Not only are people who are on the front lines affected, but also the people at home. They are affected forever. The fact that I’m still dealing with this and that my dad died in ’66 is astonishing to me.”