Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program was founded in 2011 to present a recent American work in each of ten consecutive seasons; among these operas have been Cold Mountain and Pulitzer-Prize winner Silent Night. The latest, Sky on Swings, had its world première Thursday, at the intimate Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, opening the company’s 11-day O18 Festival. Composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovich are no strangers to Opera Philadelphia: Beecher was Resident Composer for three years and the team brought their 2014 I Have No Stories to Tell You to last year’s O17 Festival.

Frederica von Stade (Danny)
© Steven Pisano

Cold Mountain dealt with the Civil War, Silent Night with World War 1, both with moving human stories, and many operas new and old are equally tragic. But Sky on Swings is about Alzheimer’s, seen through the eyes of two patients: excruciatingly sad and potentially too real.

However, an opera about two older women at different stages of the dreaded disease, while risky, is definitely a source of drama and pathos, sure to evoke profound responses. Also a given is the artistic quality when the two protagonists are mezzos Frederica von Stade (in the role of Danny, about 60) and Marietta Simpson (Martha, about 70), the former a superstar, the latter less world-renowned but on the same high level of vocalism, musicianship, persuasive acting, intelligence, and, most crucial here, humanity.

But in contemporary opera, there is no guarantee that the score will be as strong as the plot and libretto: I have experienced a number of new operas in which the music either failed to convey the text and emotions or even distracted from them. Fortunately, in Sky on Swings Lembit Beecher has woven notes to the straightforward yet expressive words of playwright Hannah Moscovitch that reveal details of feeling and action both vocally and instrumentally. He uses melismas on key words in phrases of exasperation and despair: “I can’t find my car” or “Mom, it’s okay” and in one heart-wrenching scene, gives alternately syncopated and obsessively beating instrumental underpinning to Martha’s countless desperate repetitions of “I know” – precisely when she doesn’t. The 11-piece ensemble, conducted by Geoffrey McDonald, was an equal partner in the drama.

Marietta Simpson (Martha) and Frederica von Stade (Danny)
© Steven Pisano

Robot-like reiterated notes, but also legato motifs that vanish almost as they are heard, comprise the phrases of four Elders, including such unlikely operatic language as “plaques and tangles” and “investigational drugs,” the sequence appearing several times, ever less comprehensibly. Winnie, Martha’s daughter (excellent soprano Sharleen Joynt), and Ira, Danny’s son (ditto tenor Daniel Taylor), are trying to cope with their mothers’ two versions of Alzheimer’s, and Beecher conveys their varying expressions of anger, sorrow and frustration as well as moments of tenderness and gentle coaxing. The melismas, some very high, are especially suited to Sharleen Joynt, with the Queen of the Night in her repertoire, but the two mothers are also equal to the task: von Stade and Simpson are in better vocal health than some far-younger singers.

Not coincidentally, Beecher and Moscovitch wrote Sky on Swings for and with von Stade and Simpson, taking advantage of their distinctive voices, range of dynamics and intensity, and long experience of performance and life, to give Danny and Martha specific vocal portrayals of their locations in Alzheimer’s inexorable timeline. As the two women connect and become closer, alternately comforting each other, and as Martha sees in Danny a girl she loved when 15, their voices project more sweetness, tenderness and warmth. As Danny’s disease progresses, her gait, posture and face changing, she adopts Martha’s words about that long-ago love and speaks them to her as if reversing their positions. Their voices match and finally blend (I was wishing for a duet much earlier).

Marietta Simpson (Martha) and Frederica von Stade (Danny)
© Dominic M Mercier

Director Joanna Settle doubtless had no trouble with the interpretive side, as both women are among the finest singing actresses ever and were almost unbearably real. Not every opera star can convey sorrow and empathy while sitting with her back to the audience, halfway upstage, as von Stade does during a difficult moment between Martha and Winnie. Nor can all divas project such dignity while failing mentally, as Simpson does even at Martha’s worst.

I would have liked to see the character of Ira more three-dimensional, perhaps with as much to sing as Winnie, who even has a soliloquy-style aria. And I wish that Settle had followed more of the stage directions in the libretto, and set designer Andrew Lieberman more of its scenic descriptions: yes, the large, stark, brightly-lit space within high grey walls projected emptiness and aloneness but could have used some distinction among locations.  

Sky on Swings deserves a permanent place in the repertoire, though it’s hard to imagine anyone but von Stade and Simpson in it!