by Rita Charleston
In this 44th year of Opera Philadelphia performances, it has launched its “O18 Festival” with the world premiere of “Sky on Swings,” an unflinching yet uplifting look at Alzheimer’}s disease. The work, by composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch, questions if time’s cruel and random loss of memory can still produce fleeting moments of love and happiness. Starring two of the opera world’s finest mezzo sopranos, Frederica von Stade and Germantown native Marietta Simpson, the opera continues in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center through Sept. 29.
Alzheimer’s disease has as its most common symptom difficulty in remembering recent events. “The premise of this opera is that there may be some grace in forgetting,” said Simpson, who grew up in Germantown, moved to Mt. Airy for a time, then back to Germantown. (Ed. Note: The “O18” is a shorthand way of saying “Opera Philadelphia 2018,” and the title “Sky on Swings” is a line from the opera that Marietta’s character sings as she is remembering a loving friendship from when she was 15 years old. It is a title meant to convey the beauty and fleeting nature of memory).
Over the years, Simpson has performed with major orchestras around the world under many of the world’s greatest conductors, including the late Robert Shaw in her Carnegie Hall debut in 1988 and as a soloist in Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Her deeply expressive, richly beautiful voice has made her one of the most sought-after mezzo-sopranos of our time. A graduate of Temple University who went on to receive her Master’s Degree in Music from the State University of New York at Binghamton, Simpson is currently an associate professor of voice at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, Indiana.
“Music, particularly opera, was always playing at our house, and my late older sister was an opera singer who studied at Juilliard and won vocal competitions,” Simpson said. “So it wasn’t a big stretch for me to follow in her footsteps, although originally I thought about becoming a music teacher.”
On the operatic stage, Simpson, 60, made her debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago in “Regina,” a role she later reprised at the Kennedy Center and again at the Royal Opera House in London. She has gone on to amass many impressive credits.
Simpson said that “Sky on Swings” is probably her favorite work to date.
“Although I’ve sung so many operatic pieces, I’m one of those people who say the piece I’m currently working on is my favorite,” Simpson explained.
She also believes in its importance, especially in light of the fact that statistics bring the number of people afflicted with the disease or related dementia to about 44 million.
“In this opera, my character is further along with the disease than the character created by Frederica, who is just in the beginning stages,” she continued. “We’re not trying to give a medical representation of Alzheimer’s. Rather, we’re telling a universal story of two people who ultimately find and help each other.”
In the Philadelphia Opera-commissioned world premiere of “Sky on Swings,” the two afflicted women face their fears of loss and disintegration, finding strength in fleeting moments of happiness and love.
With some family members still living in the area and Simpson’s daughter and grandchildren residing in Cherry Hill, the opera singer says she tries to get back to Philadelphia as often as possible. She says one of the hardest things about playing in Philly is having to leave and not having enough time to spend with her family. She said her hopes for the future consist of continuing to find ways to make meaningful music that has an impact on people’s lives and of bringing opera out of the concert halls and into the hearts of everyday people.
“Classical music should be readily available to everyone, everywhere,” Simpson said. “It should not be the property of just a few.”
For ticket information call 215732-8400 or go to operaphila.org