As “Glimmerglass on the Grass” drew to a close in August, production kicked into high gear on filming The Knock, a world-premiere opera depicting the lives of military wives on the home front. Just a few short weeks after production wrapped, the U.S. officially left Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of combat, and Americans remembered those they lost on September 11.
This Veterans’ Day marks the centennial anniversary of the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. It was first built to commemorate the American soldiers lost in World War I and it included the remains of one unidentified U.S. soldier. Since then, the remains of soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War have been added to the tomb. (The Vietnam soldier was exhumed and identified using DNA technology in 1998, and the crypt is empty today.)
The timeliness of The Knock resounds far beyond our current events. Even in times of peace, we can see the effects of war in our own communities. Every life lost touches the lives of countless others at home. Based on years of first-person interviews, The Knock brings a few of these stories to life.
Further Reading on the Web
Writing music… by painting? Composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s writing process starts with painting the overall landscape of the piece. On this page from the Kronos Quartet’s “50 for the Future” project, you can see the development of her Carnegie Hall-commissioned piece My Desert, My Rose from painting to final composition, complete with a performance of the piece, sheet music, interviews, and her biography. She has over 90 works to her credit, and the Republic of Serbia awarded her the Golden Emblem for lifelong dedication and contribution to her home country’s culture.
What does French operetta composer Jacques Offenbach have to do with American military anthems? Find out the histories of the songs for each branch of the US Armed Forces in this publication from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. When you’re ready to sing along, enjoy this performance of the Armed Forces Medley from PBS’s National Memorial Day Concert.
“Women” at war: Wives and families of soldiers have been crucial to the military since our nation’s very beginnings. Women’s roles in military life shift as gender norms and expectations change over time. Serena Covkin’s essay “A Short History of Military Wives, 1776-1983” gives a great overview of how women’s relationships to the US military changed America in terms of gender, foreign policy, and social welfare.
From the Chesapeake Bay to Otsego Lake: Deborah Brevoort’s interest in the lives of military wives developed in a residency with Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the world’s largest naval base. Her years of interviews and research culminated in the play The Comfort Team, which premiered in 2012. You can read The Washington-Post’s review of the play here.
Playwright and librettist Deborah Brevoort’s works apply international influences to American themes and subjects. Consider, for example, Blue Moon Over Memphis, which presents an encounter with the ghost of Elvis Presley through Noh theatre, a classical Japanese theatrical form. No stranger to opera, she has penned original award-winning operas, adaptations of Mozart and Strauss, and a play about contralto Marian Anderson. She holds an MFA in playwriting from Brown and an MFA in musical theatre writing from NYU Tisch. Hear Brevoort discuss her process on the Indie Opera Podcast.
Sometimes music is the best medicine. In 2009, a group of British women formed a choir to support each other while their loved ones served in Afghanistan. The Military Wives Choir first captured Britain’s attention after a season on the BBC’s documentary series The Choir in 2011. For The Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance in 2011, the Military Wives performed “Wherever You Are,” an original composition by Paul Mealor that used text from the women’s letters to their deployed servicemen. The song became the UK’s #1 Christmas single later that year. Now a registered charity, there are over 2,000 members in 75 choirs across the UK. Their success inspired a feature film, Military Wives, which was released in 2020.
Our opera presents what it’s like to receive the ill-fated knock, but what is it like to actually do the knocking? The 2009 film The Messenger tells the servicemen’s side of the story. After returning home wounded from Iraq, an officer gets reassigned from combat to the Army’s Casualty Notification service. Each knock opens doors to family stories, secrets, and drama.
When he retired from military service in 2017, he was the Army’s oldest enlisted soldier. He never faced combat; instead, he was a singer. Listen to Master Sergeant Alvy Powell, Jr. discuss his 26-year-long career in the U.S. Army Chorus in this interview from NPR.
For the Bookworm
Based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper feature, Jim Sheeler’s book Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives follows Maj. Steve Beck in his role as a casualty notification officer for the Marines during the Iraq War. Along the way, readers learn about the soldiers lost in battle and the families they left behind. The book was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction, with judges calling it “a rare opportunity to mourn the loss of fellow Americans sent in harm’s way.” Sheeler passed away this year, and The Washington-Post explains how writing local obituaries for Colorado newspapers led to his award-winning work profiling military casualties.
Did you know that women in the U.S. military are formally barred from combat? Despite this, women continue to serve and sacrifice their lives in armed conflict, especially in this century. When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans combines photographs by Sascha Pflaeging with oral histories collected by Laura Browder. These 48 interviews are grouped into themes such as “Spirituality,” “Motherhood,” and “Why I Joined.” You can read the introduction for free here.
Journalist Tanya Biank was the first to report the murder of four Army wives by their husbands at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 2002. Her work didn’t stop at the headlines; the news inspired her to provide a full account of the challenges faced by military spouses at home. Her book Army Wives: The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage chronicles four women’s lives from 2000 to 2002, and it inspired the hit TV series Army Wives on Lifetime. Her second book looks at women on the front lines: Undaunted: The Real Story of America’s Servicewomen in Today’s Military.
New to service life? Need some (antiquated) tips? Find a copy of The Army Wife by Nancy Shea, first published in 1941. Her guidebook served to teach a bride “what she ought to know about the Customs of the Service and the management of an army household.” She later wrote The Navy Wife and The Air Force Wife.