PILSEN — When poet Gardner McFall was 14, her father, a pilot in the Vietnam War, lost control of his plane on a stormy night in 1966 and disappeared into the Pacific Ocean.
His body was never recovered.
Though McFall already considered herself a poet at that time, she said her southern military background kept her from writing about her father’s death.
It was in the early 1980s that she wrote “The Pilot’s Daughter,” a book of poems that speak to her father’s death as well as her daughter’s birth.
Inspired by that book and by McFall’s story, American composer Daron Hagen approached Gardner in 2004 about turning her poetry into a full-length opera.
“It’s nothing that I ever imagined,” Gardner said. “I’m a writer. Luckily, I just kind of had this opportunity offered to me.”
The opera tells the story of Amelia — after Amelia Earhart — who mentally breaks down after losing her pilot father during the war in Vietnam.
Gardner, who is also the opera’s librettist, said that flight, both physical and mental, is a constant theme in the opera. Amelia has conversations with both Amelia Earhart and Icarus, who appear as characters on stage.
And while Gardner stresses that she did not have a mental breakdown like Amelia, there are many little touches from Gardner’s life that did find their way into the opera.
Amelia’s father, Dodge, shares a namesake with Gardner’s own father, and in one scene he sings the words in one of his letters to his daughter.
The words in that aria, Gardner said, came from one of the last letters her father wrote to her mother before he died.
“While I would never say poetry writing has been therapeutic, it has been a way for me to understand my life,” Gardner said.
Scott Gilmore, the show’s musical director, said it’s been an amazing opportunity to be able to stage and perform "Amelia."
“It’s a very beautiful story and the music is very accessible,” he said. “All the singers, they loved it from the first day we started working on it.”
Gilmore is an assistant professor of Opera and Vocal Coaching at Roosevelt University, which is responsible for staging the opera.
He said it’s Roosevelt’s dedication to social justice that allows the school to present free performances to communities that may otherwise not been able to experience those shows.
“To be able to show a fully staged opera in Pilsen is a very exciting thing for us. I think that is very unusual that you’ll find a fully staged opera for free,” he said.
This is the third performance ever for "Amelia," which originally debuted at the Seattle Opera in 2010.
The show runs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights at Benito Juarez Academy's Performing Arts Center, 1450 W. Cermak Road. Programs include a synopsis in both English and Spanish and admission is free and open to the public.