Published10 Jul 2018
Opera Philadelphia Launches O18 Festival with World Premiere of Lembit Beecher’s Sky on Swings, Starring Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade (Sep 20–29)
O18, the second edition of Opera Philadelphia’s annual season-opening festival, launches on September 20 – on the eve of World Alzheimer’s Day – with the world premiere of Sky on Swings. An unflinching yet uplifting exploration of Alzheimer’s disease from the creative team behind O17’s I Have No Stories to Tell You, the new chamber opera finds fleeting beauty in memory loss, pairing the “hauntingly lovely and deeply personal” music of Lembit Beecher (San Francisco Chronicle) with a profoundly sensitive libretto by “Canada’s hottest young playwright,” Hannah Moscovitch (Globe and Mail). Starring mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, who imbues her performances with “infinitely touching and vivid expressiveness” (Opera News), and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, “one of America’s finest artists and singers” (New York Times), Sky on Swings is perhaps the only opera to be headlined by two mature female vocalists. It makes its debut at the intimate Perelman Theater in an original production by celebrated stage director Joanna Settle, under the baton of On Site Opera’s Geoffrey McDonald, and marks the latest in a string of important new works first brought to life at Opera Philadelphia, which continues to prove itself “one of the most creative and ambitious companies in this country” (New York Times).
The production coincides with World Alzheimer’s Month, an international campaign mounted each September to raise awareness and challenge the stigma that surrounds dementia. World Alzheimer’s Month was launched in 2012, and World Alzheimer’s Day is on September 21 each year.
About Beecher, Moscovitch, Settle and Sky on Swings
Lembit Beecher served a three-year term as Opera Philadelphia’s inaugural Composer in Residence and is now composer-in-residence of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He first collaborated with Hannah Moscovitch, winner of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, on I Have No Stories to Tell You (2014). This earlier chamber opera, which prompted the New York Observer to confess: “I’m eager to hear more operas from Mr. Beecher,” made its Philadelphia premiere at the O17 festival as the second half of War Stories, a site-specific double-bill at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The team’s new work, Sky on Swings, addresses the impermanence of memory that threatens us all, and explores the new hallucinatory experiences that can follow the onset of dementia. Through the story of Martha (Marietta Simpson) and Danny (Frederica von Stade), two women battling different stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Beecher and Moscovitch find grace in the horror of forgetting, discovering moments of happiness, unencumbered by memories or the mantle of the self.
Martha’s condition has advanced to the point that her world has become hallucinatory and much of her life has slipped away: she must consult a written memo to remember that her husband is dead. Danny is at an earlier stage of the disease, and has trouble reconciling her newfound difficulties with her identity as an academic whose early memories remain intact. Forced to move into the same assisted living facility as Martha, she still understands her predicament well enough to be appalled by it. Yet the two women soon find unlikely companionship together. Bridging differences of race, class, and education, they bring each other the comfort that even their own children can no longer give, holding one another close in a love that takes them deep into their shared fantastical experience of reality.
Joanna Settle, Associate Arts Professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, has created productions for companies including New York’s Public Theater, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Connecticut’s Shakespeare on the Sound, where she formerly served as Artistic Director. She says:
“More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, and a new person is diagnosed with the disease every 66 seconds. More than 15 million Americans are unpaid caregivers of someone with Alzheimer’s. This opera wonders, aside from the tragedy of the disease for caregivers, what discovery might step into the space left by the degeneration of consciousness in the diagnosed.”
Beecher describes why, as a composer, he was first drawn to the subject:
“A question that I keep returning to is this: Does the disease change who we are, or does it reveal in some way our deepest selves by stripping away layers? I have heard or read many of examples of both: the pious aunt who develops a cursing habit, or the immigrant father who sings perfectly the songs of his youth even after he has lost all other facility to communicate. I am interested in how the experience of the disease and in particular, these two opposing ideas, might be expressed through music.”
Moscovitch too soon saw the project’s appeal. She says:
“Once we talked about what we wanted to do, I knew we were going to do something good. We were interested in the subjectivity of the disease. It wasn’t going to be about the children, being tortured by a disease that turned their parents into zombies. We were going to actually go into the point of view of someone with Alzheimer’s, and we were going to show their magic realist-surrealist world. We knew that we were going to have characters who were at different stages of the disease. And we knew that they would fall in love: that it would be a love story.”
About the cast and crew
Sky on Swings is rare in calling for mature women in both its leading roles. For the world premiere production, the role of Danny will be created by Frederica von Stade. One of the most beloved musical figures of our time, the mezzo-soprano is known to audiences around the world, not only for her live performances in opera, concert, and recital, but through her numerous television appearances and 60-plus recordings, which have won her six Grammy nominations, two Grand Prix du Disc awards, and the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis. As Opera News observes,
“During the past three decades, Frederica von Stade has gathered legions of admirers worldwide. They’re a fiercely loyal company, and it’s easy to understand why. Her stage performances and recitals combine superior artistry with emotional directness, clarity of tone with crystalline diction, natural elegance with unpretentious passion.”
Von Stade will co-star opposite her fellow mezzo-soprano, Marietta Simpson, as Martha. Besides singing leading roles at such companies as Lyric Opera of Chicago, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Simpson has appeared with orchestras including the New York, Berlin, and Vienna Philharmonics, and boasts a Grammy Award-winning discography. After Opera Philadelphia’s regional premiere of Cold Mountain, Opera News concluded that “pride of place went to Marietta Simpson’s Lucinda,” for giving “both words and tone infinitely touching and vivid expressiveness.”
Beecher was thrilled to have the opportunity to write for voices of their caliber. He explains:
“This opera involves a wide range of vocal expression to find moments of both strength and vulnerability, and moments that can suggest, in an expressive way, the deterioration the disease causes. At times, this may involve vocal approaches that are not common on the operatic stage. This is particularly true of the Martha character, who is at a more advanced stage of the disease, and who sometimes vocalizes in a way that some Alzheimer’s patients do as they are losing the ability to speak. The chance to work with Flicka and Marietta at the beginning of the project and throughout the workshopping process, and their openness to experimentation, was crucial to the development of the opera. Before I began to write, I went out to Indiana and met with Marietta and, working with her, found these amazing spots in her voice, these unique, expressive sounds that she’s able to create. I don’t know for certain, but I bet she wasn’t able to create them 30 years ago in the same way, when she was in her quote-unquote ‘prime.’ There is so much artistry and nuance in Flicka and Marietta’s voices, and the deep sense of humanity they are able to project provides a powerful juxtaposition with the instrumental music of the opera, which deteriorates gradually through the course of its nine scenes.”
As Settle put it:
“I love that we’re asserting there are stories beyond the traditional frames for women. Beyond what we’re used to hearing. Sky on Swings can’t be sung by anyone except voices that have lived a life. Is there any other opera with two women of a certain age in the leads? It’s not that there aren’t many – there are none. This is the only one.”
Sky on Swings’ two leads will be joined by tenor Daniel Taylor, “a mellifluous talent you should watch for” (Opera Today), in the role of Danny’s son, Ira, and by Sharleen Joynt, a coloratura soprano with “a voice full of power and control that is by turns seductive and serene” (Globe and Mail), as Martha’s daughter, Winnie. They will be supported by a chorus of elders at the assisted living facility: soprano Veronica Chapman-Smith and tenorGeorge Somerville, who originated the roles of Ligeia and Morbus in O17’s world premiere production of The Wake World, with mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano and bass-baritone Frank Mitchell, who also portrays the home’s administrator.
The cast will sing under the leadership of Geoffrey McDonald, Music Director of New York City’s On Site Opera, who has conducted productions for Atlanta Opera, Wolf Trap, Opera Omaha, Chicago Opera Theater, and Caramoor. Opera Philadelphia’s set design is by Andrew Lieberman, whose opera and theater designs have been seen at English National Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Sydney Opera, Festival d’Aix en Provence, the Royal Shakespeare Company, New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Public Theater, Bard Summerscape, and on Broadway. Costume design is by Tilly Grimes, whose work has been nominated for the 2018 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Costume Design, and lighting by Pat Collins, whose honors include both Tony and Drama Desk Awards. Sky on Swings will also feature projections by Barrymore Award-winner Jorge Cousineau, whose Opera Philadelphia credits include O17’s We Shall Not Be Moved and 2015’s ANDY: A Popera.
About the American Repertoire Program
Sky on Swings represents the most recent of the “ambitious, accomplished and dramatically direct” (New York Times)” new works yielded by Opera Philadelphia’s innovative American Repertoire Program. Founded in 2011 with a commitment to producing a recent American work in each of ten consecutive seasons, this was established to foster a new generation of homegrown opera composers to tell authentically American stories. As a result, besides mounting East Coast premieres of such important contemporary works as Cold Mountain, A Coffin in Egypt, Oscar, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Silent Night, the company has also presented six world premieres in its past three seasons. The first was Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, which went on to launch new partnerships with Harlem’s Apollo Theater and London’s Hackney Empire, where it was presented in collaboration with the English National Opera. It has since been staged at Lyric Opera of Chicago and makes its jazz club debut at Atlanta Opera this fall. Next followed ANDY: A Popera, an opera-cabaret hybrid inspired by Andy Warhol, and Breaking the Waves, a 2017 International Opera Award finalist that not only won the Music Critics’ Association of North America’s inaugural “Best New Opera” award, but is already reputed to be “among the finest operas of the new century” (New York Times). O17 brought the world premieres of Elizabeth Cree, which went on to enjoy a successful run at Chicago Opera Theater; The Wake World, a hallucinatory musical journey through the art collections of Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation named “Best New Opera” of 2017 by the Music Critics’ Association of North America; and We Shall Not Be Moved, an interdisciplinary new chamber opera by Daniel Bernard Roumain, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and Bill T. Jones, which made its acclaimed New York premiere at the Apollo Theater and its European debut at the Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam.
About Opera Philadelphia
Opera Philadelphia is committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century. O17, its first annual season-opening festival, was welcomed as “one of the most enjoyable additions to the fall calendar in years” (Washington Post). Now the 2018-19 season kicks off with O18, comprising five operatic happenings – two world premieres, two new productions, and a three-part cabaret event – at multiple venues across Philadelphia. In addition to Sky on Swings, the festival sees Anthony Roth Costanzo headline the world premiere of Glass Handel, the immersive, multidisciplinary operatic installation he is creating with transmedia specialist Visionaire at the Barnes Foundation. Brenda Rae sings the title role in Laurent Pelly’s new mainstage production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Edward Nelson partners Patricia Racette in Ne Quittez Pas, which offers a wider context for Poulenc’s La voix humaine in the cabaret setting of the Theatre of Living Arts. The venue also hosts Queens of the Night, a three-night cabaret takeover starring Opera News Award-winner Stephanie Blythe and self-described “drag queen king” Dito van Reigersberg. Described as “the very model of a modern opera company” (Washington Post), Opera Philadelphia was the only American finalist for the 2016 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company. For more information, visit operaphila.org.
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Opera Philadelphia presents world premiere of Sky on Swings at O18
Music by Lembit Beecher
Libretto by Hannah Moscovitch
September 20, 22, 25, 27 & 29
American Repertoire Program
Danny: Frederica von Stade
Martha: Marietta Simpson
Ira: Daniel Taylor
Winnie: Sharleen Joynt*
Elder No. 1: Veronica Chapman-Smith
Elder No. 2: Maren Montalbano
Elder No. 3: George Somerville
Elder No. 4/Administrator: Frank Mitchell
Conductor: Geoffrey McDonald*
Director: Joanna Settle*
Set design: Andrew Lieberman
Costume design: Tilly Grimes*
Projection design: Jorge Cousineau
Lighting design: Pat Collins
* Opera Philadelphia debut
Aurora Productions in the Perelman Theater are underwritten, in part, by the Wyncote Foundation at the Recommendation of Frederick R. Haas. Additional production support received by the Allen R. and Judy Brick Freedman Venture Fund for New Opera.