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Opera Philadelphia's World Premiere of SKY ON SWINGS launches O18 Festival


Opera Philadelphia's World Premiere of SKY ON SWINGS launches O18 Festival

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 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, and marks the latest in a string of important new works first brought to life at Opera Philadelphia.

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."

Photo: Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade in Sky on Swings (photo by Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia)

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