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 music of Lembit Beecher with a profoundly sensitive libretto by young playwright Hannah Moscovitch.
Starring mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, 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.
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 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Settle says: “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 in the role of Danny’s son, Ira, and by Sharleen Joynt, a coloratura soprano as Martha’s daughter, Winnie. They will be supported by a chorus of elders at the assisted living facility: soprano Veronica Chapman-Smith, tenor George Somerville, 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.
About Opera Philadelphia
Opera Philadelphia is committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century. O17, its first 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.
For more information, visit operaphila.org.