Sky on Swings
a chamber opera in 9 scenes
libretto by Hannah Moscovitch
duration: ~75 minutes
8 singers (4 principals and 4 secondary characters)
11 players (0.0.1(bcl).0-0.1.1.0-perc.pno.hp.-18.104.22.168.1)
SKY ON SWINGS was commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and was premiered in September 2018 at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater in Philadelphia with direction by Joanna Settle.
We open on an Alzheimer’s hallucination. Martha, a woman in her seventies, sees a surreal and exaggeratedworld in which strangers torment her and weather invades her kitchen. Martha remains in the grips of her hallucination until the presence of Martha’s daughter, Winnie, rips her out of it. Suddenly, shockingly, Martha is back in the Alzheimer’s care facility where she lives. As Martha visits with her daughter, elements of the hallucination linger, complicating her ability to interact in a normal way.
We meet Danny, a woman in her sixties, as her son Ira pushes her to undergo a simple Alzheimer’s test: remembering a list of ten nouns. When Danny struggles to recall even one or two of the words, she’s forced to reckon with her cognitive decline. Danny’s memory isfading but, at this point, she’s still fully able to reckon with and agonize about the bleakness of her future.
Danny and Martha meet at the Alzheimer’s care facility and fall into a strange intimacy. Danny reminds Martha of a girl she fell in love with when she was fifteen years old . Martha’s nostalgia blurs past and present until Danny becomes the girl she loved. As Danny’s mind starts to ebb, the women exist in a romantic, fantastical and incoherent landscape together…
SKY ON SWINGS went through many stages of development. I first began thinking about this project during my final year as a composer-in-residence of Opera Philadelphia in 2014, and these seeds of ideas took new shape when I began working with librettist Hannah Moscovitch and director Joanna Settle. But perhaps more than anything else, the music of the opera was shaped and inspired by the voices of Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade.
There are many stories to tell about Alzheimer’s: family members, caretakers, researchers, and doctors all have unique perspectives. But from an early stage of working on this piece, I knew I wanted the focus to be on the experience of the disease: to try, as much as possible, to view the world through the eyes of two individuals with Alzheimer’s and to give voice to those characters. A caretaker I was talking to about the disease told me, “once you’ve seen one case of Alzheimer’s, you’ve seen one case of Alzheimer’s.” Part of the challenge of this piece was to try to figure out how to express the effects of Alzheimer’s in two vocally distinct characters whose experience of the disease is different. Working with Marietta and Flicka as I began to write was crucial to the development of the opera and I’m so grateful for their generosity, artistry, and openness to experimentation throughout the process of writing and work-shopping.
One of the unexpected joys of writing SKY ON SWINGS was the realization that I had the opportunity to write music that could not be sung by younger singers. The wide range of sounds and subtleties of expression that Marietta and Flicka are able to create provided a wonderful sense of freedom for me as a composer as I searched for moments of both strength and vulnerability, and moments that could suggest in an expressive way the deterioration Alzheimer’s causes. This is particularly true of the Martha character, who is in a more progressed stage of the disease, and who vocalizes in a way that some Alzheimer’s patients do as they are losing the ability to speak. In the music of the orchestra and the four Elders, I wanted to create an unstable sonic world that is moving and shifting, as if one were aboard a large creaking ship, slowly rolling in the waves. Sometimes the music gets stuck on repeat but mostly it keeps slipping through one’s fingers, with recognizable phrases, gestures and almost remembered quotations appearing briefly before evaporating. As the orchestral music fractures and disintegrates through the course of the opera, the voices of Flicka and Marietta become a constant, cutting against the deterioration of the instrumental music.
As I worked I kept returning to this question: 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. This was a central question for me as I thought about how the characters of Martha and Danny would be expressed and developed through music. But as I neared the end of the opera, this question seemed to diminish in importance and the music I wrote for the two took on a life of its own, inspired and carried by the deep sense of humanity that Marietta and Flicka are able to project through their voices.
“Sky on Swings wasn’t easy. But it was theatrically true and artistically distinguished. Art on this level may be sobering, but this degree of accomplishment is never depressing…Even when it veered into the abstract, nearly everything felt honest about this story of two women in an Alzheimer’s ward, forging a relationship when there might seem that there’s nothing left to forge.
Beecher, especially, seemed to be operating with sure instincts. With an 11-piece orchestra plus electronically generated sound, he broke down the orchestra into nearly every conceivable pairing, utilizing them in ways that were anything but obvious…his musical invention is astonishing here.”
David Patrick Stearns (Philadelphia Inquirer) – September 21, 2018
The result was a triumph for everyone involved….Beecher, who was the company’s first composer-in-residence…has come up with an eloquent, intricate, edgy score that maps the decline of the characters through music, mixing dissonance and gorgeous melody, jazzy inflections and jarring Sprechstimme.
Richard Sasanow (Broadway World) – September 26, 2018
Composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch have created a shattering musical and theatrical evocation of what it feels like to have Alzheimer’s disease. This was opera as real life: In a tour-de-force duo performance, two veteran mezzo-sopranos—Marietta Simpson as Martha, who is far gone in the disease, and Frederica von Stade as Danny, who knows what is happening to her and is in frantic denial—enacted the terror and confusion of not knowing where you are and, even worse, who you are. They were surrounded by the sounds of a murmuring ensemble of four Elders and an 11-member orchestra, led by Geoffrey McDonald, whose unsettled harmonies and repeated intervals poignantly captured the struggles of a mind trying to grasp what’s just out of reach. The 78-minute opera toggles between the distress of losing and the serenity of finding, as the two women, who meet in a care facility, help each other by sinking into a new, shared fantasy of identity.
Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal) – September 28, 2018
From the moment Sky on Swings begins, there’s an electric sensation of how vividly music represents the experience of Alzheimer’s. Though there are stretches of lyrical reflection, including two gorgeous scenes for von Stade and Simpson together, these mostly evoke fading memories. More often, an agitated open-endedness can be heard in this very contemporary sound world. A downward sliding motif ends many phrases, and often fragments of melody are heard in disparate instruments (piano, harp) as though wending their way through the orchestra without ever quite joining it.
To their credit, Beecher and Moscovitch do nothing to sugarcoat the awfulness of Alzheimer’s. But they also acknowledge, without sentimentalizing it, that our remaining time here can still be worthwhile…I admired Sky on Swings enormously, and I think it’s a monumental achievement for Opera Philadelphia.
David Fox (Parterre) – September 21, 2018