The war in Vietnam left its mark on a generation of Americans, from veterans to protesters to the families of those who were killed. It's inspired films and novels, and now an opera. Seattle Opera is presenting the world premiere of Amelia, which examines the legacy of the Vietnam War from the home-front perspective.
The opera begins with goodbye. A man in a white military uniform sings a lullaby to his young daughter. He's shipping out for Vietnam. The little girl is Gardner McFall.
In 1966, when McFall was 14, her father -- a Navy pilot who led bombing missions during the war -- was on a training mission off the California coast, preparing for his second tour of duty.
"He took off on a foggy night, in a storm," McFall says, "and the plane settled into the ocean. They lost radio contact with him, and he was never recovered. And so I've always wondered what happened to him, as my younger brother did -- who was only 9 when [my father] 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."
Trying To Deal With Loss
To deal with her father's death, 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.
But she wasn't sold on the idea of transforming her personal tragedy into an opera.
"I hesitated a bit. I wasn't sure it was a good idea," McFall says. "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."
But McFall trusted her friend, composer 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 Ameila -- is Gardner McFall.
"Gardner has lived her life as a victim of -- and a person who was exalted by -- flight," Hagen says. "Consequently, she'd be the ideal librettist, because she could own the story; she had lived it inside herself."
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.
To prepare herself to write this scene, Gardner McFall made her first trip to Vietnam.
"It was a stressful trip," McFall says. "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 and the home front, which Amelia is about, but also from the Vietnamese standpoint."
The Other Side
Like McFall, Marie Tran has spent more than 30 years coming to grips with her Vietnam War experiences. Tran was just 9 when she and her family fled from the advancing North Vietnamese Army. Tran's father worked for the South Vietnamese government.
"My father, of course, was at risk, and actually our entire family was at risk," Tran says. So the family took a small boat to an island off the coast, where they waited to get to Saigon.
"My grandmother decided that she was not going to join us for the rest of the trip," Tran says. "She said, 'I don't want to slow you down, and I really want to live and die in my own country.' And that was the last time I saw Grandmother, and that was the last time my mother saw her mother."
Just six days before the fall of Saigon -- in April 1975 -- Tran's family managed to leave Vietnam. They were resettled in Oklahoma. Tran says she couldn't bear to return to Vietnam until just two years ago.
"In facing our memories and our past, whether it's pleasant or not, it becomes a healing process for each of us," Tran says. "No matter whether you are veterans or Vietnamese refugees, you grieve. There's grieving process that takes place. And it may take years to manage that, and each of us grieve and heal in a different way."
Trying To Move On
Marie Tran now lives and teaches in Seattle. Gardner McFall lives in New York. She says that 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 during his first tour in Vietnam. She used it verbatim.
My two loves,
The Grim Reaper called today. It's "go" on the Haiphong power plant. I am leading eight planes and fully expect heavy opposition. I am at peace within myself. I have no fear, but write this for reality's sake.
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. You deserve everything good in life -- especially love.
So leave the doors open.
I love you always.
For Gardner McFall, the opera Amelia is the goodbye she never got to say to her father.
"Although my book of poems was an elegy to him, it's still a book of poems," McFall says. "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."