My Military Life: Un Opera Completo — Synopsis
(Prologue) The opera opens on a young man on stage as an offstage voice asks him what drives him to enlist.
(Overture – Ho Sentito) He romanticizes Italy and in his mind equates it with his need to return for his teenage love interest, Elisa. In the first scene we are flashed back to 1906 through 1911 and the aria (Io Tornero duet) reflects the early love meeting and then the letters between Bernard and Elisa. We also hear a bit of the backstory of the triangle with Bernard’s mother.
Bernardino wants to enlist on Italy’s behalf. His parents who were patriotic from afar and concerned about Italy have given him the false opinion that they are pro-war. Instead they are glad to be firmly in America and want him to give up his romantic notion of returning to Italy. The argument goes on and on as he gains strength and they relent – one month before his 21st birthday. (The March of the Recruits).
He gets ready and there is a dramatic leave taking, especially from his mother. On the train for Canada things start to feel wrong as the other soldiers tell him that he is crazy to leave America when he was already established with a career, a job and a family. (Free or Condemned – Duet with Elisa)
He becomes a soldier but only in an abstract way. The drills are not particularly taxing, the weapons are largely useless and there is the vague feeling that everything is disorganized. After only a month of training, Bernard is placed in a battalion of replacements always waiting behind the lines and although they are called up, they do not engage the enemy right away. (Choral March of the New Soldiers) They are moved around much like his toy soldiers at home and wait for war.
However, the conditions worsen. (O Salvami – Soldier’s rondelet) Then he’s at the trenches of the front and firing at the enemy. Of the 258 in his company, 215 died outright. The wounded were dying around them or on the way to military field hospitals. (To Kill a Loving Man) Fifteen more dropped out of the march of the broken battalion. Twenty more went to the field hospital for frozen feet. Their captain died at the hospital and so seven men returned. Bernard was one of the seven. (Sollevato-Soldier’s song).
He helps other soldiers who cannot read or write and sees how simple are their interpretations of the war (Deserter’s Letter to the King).
He finds little time to think about love and only time to think about survival (Only Time to Stay Alive). A major battle takes the lives of two of his dear friends, a tailor and a shoemaker who were sitting on either side of him. They are wounded (Moaning Soldier’s Lament). He is profoundly shaken by their deaths. (Tra Le Stelle).
Bernardino is becoming further traumatized as war becomes twisted and ugly. (Leveled By A Train). Then the trains begin to represent the boredom of war and travel to family or death. He is confused but the train metaphor continues through his life (We Cannot Stop). In the midst of his confusion, he receives word that his little sister has died of the Spanish Flu or Influenza epidemic. (Michelina, Sorellina) As his woes pile up he is deeply disturbed and he gives up (Let Me Go to the End).
Finally Germans surround his company and they are all captured and taken prisoner and Bernard is at his lowest mental point (The Lessons Soldiers Learn).
In the Entr’acte, Bernard and the offstage soldier interact and recoup their experience of war and why Bernardino is there.
Act II opens with Bernardino’s family in Chicago no longer hearing from him, no letters, no telegrams, no nothing. They fear the worst (We are Worrying). Meanwhile Bernardino and thousands of other are being marched to prison camps or worse. He sings (The Soldier Is No More).
As things get much worse, Bernardino finds that somehow man’s inner hope that things will improve pulls them through (Because of Hope). As they continue to loot for the Germans in Udine, Bernard begins to merge his thoughts of Elisa with the atrocities of post war thuggery (I Looked For You).
Stripped of his family, his love, his identity, Bernardino looks for ways to be something of even a bit of importance. He tries to join the cooks in the hospital (Let Me Cook) but is too weak to assist them and is sent on.
His health deteriorates but his friends help him with food and support. His comrades are the only ones who seem to be there for him. His family has sent him no packages due to a mix up of addresses and hospitals, his girlfriend sends no letters, his family in America does not even know if he is alive and so he sings (Only My Friends). On the other side of this issue, Elisa and the families are just as confused (I Hear Nothing).
Bernardino has seemingly lost everyone except his immediate coterie of friends when Armistice is declared. Bernardino is at his lowest both physically and mentally and sings a bitter aria (Victory).
After walking miles and recuperating for a bit due to a depleted condition he returns to Forli where Elisa breaks their engagement (E Fatta). He tries to be brave but his idea of a great romance is gone.
Dispirited, he is not discharged from duty but requested to oversee prisoners on work farms for the remainder of his military obligation and he agrees because he is unwilling to just pass time waiting. (Nostro Passato).
He finds his stay at Lupinari very pleasant but takes one unauthorized trip too many and is punished by being sent to a camp in a remote location in Luogomano where he meets, Josephine (Love Ditty). They become engaged but the camp is dissolved as postwar Italy grapples with scattered Communist uprisings. Bernardino is sent to Santomato, another beautiful farm but a very mean Sergeant in charge has bullied his young corporal into committing suicide (Words Can Kill).
All camps discharged, the communist uprisings quelled, Bernardino begins to meet American and Italian soldiers who have fought in the war and he reasserts his patriotism for the sake of camaraderie but misses physically being in America (Toasting and Lamenting).
Bernardino recognizes that he is a changed man who will always be conflicted without and within (Full of War).
He marries Josephine thinking that if he accomplishes one thing from his Italian sojourn he will be healed but that is not true. He sings again the opening aria (Ho Sentito) because it sounds strange to him. Very childish and simple and he is no longer the same man.
In the epilogue we see that Bernardino and the offstage voice are really the two parts of himself that he is trying to unite. Now they are very close to one another as Bernardino says, “I have no answer. Not now, not ever,” and throws himself over the edge of the stage as his conscience collapses.
Note: This is an imaginary opera constructed to accompany the novel Pro Patria. It was written (lyrics) by Marcella Bernard.