Opera Fix September 10, 2018

Chuck Sachs interviews Lembit Beecher Composer of Sky on Swings, which will premier September 20 – 29, 2018 as part of Philadelphia Opera’s festival O 2018.

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SKY ON SWINGS, a new chamber opera

  • Lembit Beecher, composer
  • Hannah Moscovitch, librettist
  • Joanna Settle, director
  • Geoffrey McDonald, conductor
  • Opera Philadelphia, commissioned and producing world premiere
  • O18 Festival (performances on 9/20,22,25,27 & 29)
  • World Alzheimer’s Day, September 20th
  • Lembit’s first dramatic musical work is the oratorio

And Then I Remember.

  • It was created for two performers he admired:
  • Mary Bonhag, soprano
  • Evan Primo, double bass
  • It is based on oral histories with his grandmother.

He was composer in residence at Opera Philadelphia for three years.

  • The program gave him the support and freedom to experiment composing for opera. He wrote 10-15 scenes with different librettists
    trying out various techniques and learning how to set sung text whether it be recitative or lyrical.
  • He also learned about all the other facets of opera production.
  • Through this residency he also attended the Opera America conferences where got to interact with many other creative artists.

Sky On Swings is about patients who are in varying stages of Alzheimer’s.

  • The opera’s genesis was in a short scene that he created with Hannah
  • Moscovitch during his 3rd year of residence. He saw the reaction to the material and it felt like this was subject matter ripe for operatic treatment.
  • Two things emerged:
    1. This was a chance to tell a story from the perspective of two people suffering from Alzheimer’s with less focus on their surrounding family members. In opera you can show inner experience, and the line between inner and outer can be blurred, as opposed to the hyper-realism you find in a TV program.
    2. To write for older voices, composing music that could only be sung by mature singers. He could take advantage of what they can do now, as opposed to how they sounded 30 or more years ago. Music that is expressively and beautifully suggestive of the physical degradation that comes with aging.
  • Frederick von Stade creates the role of Danny
  • Marietta Simpson creates the role of Martha
  • Lembit knew that they had been cast about 1.5 years before this production. The libretto had been somewhat crafted, but not finished
    and he was finally beginning to put together and compose the score. He was able to get to know both mezzo-sopranos and it greatly helped
    him define the sound of score. There would be no singular musical language for how Alzheimer’s would be represented as each case and patient are unique.
  • With Martha, whose symptoms are more progressed, language is beginning to fail her. She has a vocal tic, a gesture that is present throughout the
    opera. There are certain mumbled fast text or repeated texts that go from semi-clear to mumbled and back to semi-clear. Her ability to express herself is going in and out, although the inner life is still strong.
  • The opera’s title comes from a piece of text that Danny has, it is about a brief intense flash of memory about seeing the sky while swinging.
    • The title also implies that the whole world seems a bit untethered, that it is swinging around them.
  • This feeling is further underscore by the orchestration which provides a landscape that doesn’t quite feel grounded.
    What grounds the characters are their voices and their relationship to each other.

What was the creation process between himself and Hannah:

  • There were initial discussions between them, then Hannah went away and to get her mind around the story. Once she has an outline and some formative text, she comes back and there’s lots of give and take to create the sung portions
    of the libretto. Joanna Settle, the director was deeply involved with the crafting of the libretto.
  • The three of them went on retreat together, did research, talked through ideas, and then Hannah went away to write again.
    Finding the set forms of arias, duets or scenes came from further discussions because the libretto was not written in prose.

There are 4 principal leads an 4 secondary leads who play a variety of characters. Danny, Ira (her son), Martha, Winnie (her daughter) and a chorus of 4 elders from the assisted living facility.

The chamber orchestra has 11 instrumentalists

Contemporary Estonian Music

  • Arvo Part, an Estonian composer of classical and religious music
  • Veljo Tormis, was an Estonian composer, regarded as one of the greatestliving choral composers.
  • Lembit produced a series of concerts at the New York Estonian House on East 34th street when he first came to New York. Earlier in his career he did research on Estonian music and incorporated that into his compositions.
  • Now, it’s become less and less of a feature, although there are still some abstract elements, like the call and response pattern where the 2nd voice comes in sooner than you expect. The voice joins in on the last bit of the 1st voices phrase.


  • A work for chamber orchestra for the St. Paul’s Chamber Orchestra.
  • It is based on the idea of “home” and utilizes 50 interviews from people in the St. Paul community about what home means to them.
  • The piece weaves these recordings as seamlessly as possible into the orchestral music.
  • He does note that his compositions tend to have a documentary nature to them.

Credits: Chuck Sachs, interviewer; Peter Szep producer/editor

Introduction Music And Then I Remember, movement 5: And Then It All Began to Change with Mary Bonhag, soprano and Robert Boardman, conductor. (This excerpt features recorded audio of Lembit Beecher’s grandmother’s voice).
Exit Music is from  “As Long As I Remember My Children” (from the song cycle Looking at Spring: Meditations on Aging.). This is a live recording from a song Lembit wrote about five years ago (as he was beginning to think about the opera) that deals with Alzheimer’s.
Performers: Mary Bonhag, soprano and Scrag Mountain Music.

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