Heartland Men’s Chorus Production Ponders the Identity of the Unknown Soldier

In 1921, Sergeant Edward F. Younger stepped into a room with four flag-draped coffins, filled with the remains from four American soldiers, each from a different battlefield from World War I. He laid a bouquet of white roses on one, and that soldier was interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, representing the estimated 900 unidentified fallen.

Exploring who these Unknowns might have been, Heartland Men’s Chorus presents the world premiere of “We, The Unknown,” a large-scale work for the chorus’s June concert, “Indivisible,” featuring songs of resistance and remembrance. The concert commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the United States’ arrival on the Western Front.

HMC member Rob Hill, a third-generation soldier who retired in 1989 as Army Lieutenant Colonel, originally conceived of the project. While Hill knew about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it wasn’t until around 2005 that he heard the particulars of the selection process and thought, “What if the person selected was a young gay man?”

“I think today, these conjectures are probably not all that earth-shattering, but if you think back to when Younger selected the Unknown Soldier . . . we’re talking almost 100 years. Just thinking back to when I joined the service, I probably never would have imagined a gay person being the Unknown Soldier.”

“Gay men of my generation, we were in many ways unknown or invisible, believing we had to hide our authentic selves,” he said.

Dustin Cates, HMC’s artistic director, brought in Timothy C. Takach to write the score, a lush and varied palette for soloists, male chorus and chamber orchestra.

Hill, who co-wrote the libretto, imagines Younger’s moments with the four coffins before making his selection of one, and who the Unknown could have been: a fearful soldier, afraid of combat; an African-American soldier, treated second class; a gay soldier, hiding his love? For the final Unknown, Hill tells the story of the lost son though the voice of his Gold Star mother.

Co-librettist Pat Daneman refined the lyrics and “added nuance to each of the characters and differentiated them in a poet’s way,” said Hill, weaving the original voice with poetry from the era.

“I just think there’s that tendency to think of the All-American apple-pie white male as being interred,” said Hill, “but what’s being examined in this piece are our notions of who we honor and the fact that in the end, every soldier or every individual is worthy of acknowledgement, of being named and being honored.”

The second half of the concert features music of protest and includes a set of songs performed by the United States Army Soldiers’ Chorus.

For some, patriotism — the love of country — manifests itself through protest, said Hill. “For a thriving democracy, we have to allow for other voices to be heard. We could label those other voices as being protestors, but all they are really doing is offering an alternative voice.”

“Complementing this idea is another: that those who serve do so to protect this aspect of democracy,” said Hill.

“The possibilities of who the Unknown is are infinite, so think about someone in your family or among your friends who served. How would you envision this person?” he asked.

“There is sadness to the fact that this person is unknown, but it also allows an individual to become universal.”

Younger chose the third coffin on the left. Who does it hold, do you imagine?

Heartland Men’s Chorus presents “Indivisible” at 8 p.m. June 9 and 4 p.m. June 10 at the Folly Theater, 300 West 12th St. For more information, visit hmckc.org or WetheUnknown.org.

Above: The Heartland Men’s Chorus commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the United States’ arrival on the Western Front with a June 9 and 10 concert, “Indivisible,” at the Folly Theater. The performance will include the world premiere of “We, The Unknown.” Photo by Susan McSpadden.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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