“Sky on Swings” at the Philadelphia Opera

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"Sky on Swings" photo by Steven Pisano

Opera Philadelphia’s Annual Festival is here! Festival O18, runs from now until September 30, 2018. The civic experiment is comprised of 11 days of opera and citywide events. Organizers say, “It transforms Philadelphia into an urban stage where diverse audiences gather to share an experience and amplify human connectedness.”

In addition to new productions of famous operas there are World Premieres of new ones. One such piece is Sky on Swings. This new chamber opera centers on people living with Alzheimer’s disease. It is a frank, heartwarming show that offers the audience a deeper look at the ephemeral beauty of memory loss, and its effect on others. This opera stars two amazingly talented mezzo-sopranos, the iconic Frederica von Stade, and Philadelphia native Marietta Simpson.

I spoke with them about this show and their obviously easy friendship.

Alyx Reinhardt: An opera staring two mezzo’s is pretty amazing, that must have been a nice surprise.

"Sky on Swings" photo by Steven Pisano
“Sky on Swings” photo by Steven Pisano

Marietta Simpson: Yes it’s been great. You’d think there must be a coloratura in there somewhere!

Frederica von Stade: And sure enough there is! (They both laugh)

An opera about Alzheimer’s disease sounds like a pretty heavy subject matter. What were your thoughts when you first heard about the production?

FvS: Excitement. Because it is so much a part of our world today, whether it affects you personally or distantly. When you get to a certain age you really start to think about it a lot. What would you do? What would you do with your kids, what would happen to this? What about that? So it’s been really wonderful to be able to tackle this in the safe place of music.

Have either of you been touched with Alzheimer’s on a personal level?

FvS: I have, with two of my aunts. One passed quite quickly and the other lingered a long time. They were completely different. Very different circumstances for both of them. But both weighed very heavily on their families, and obviously on themselves.

MS: I don’t have a personal experience with Alzheimer’s. We’ve done several interviews, and I would say my family has dealt a lot with mental illness, but not Alzheimer’s specific.

Are there any light hearted moments in Sky?

MS: These diseases, they are very heavy. But within that, there are lighthearted moments. There are funny things that happen within these very dire situations. There are funny situations that happen in families. You know someone will say something that triggers a memory from years ago, and all of a sudden you laugh wondering where that thought came from.

"Sky on Swings" photo by Steven Pisano
“Sky on Swings” photo by Steven Pisano

FvS: …and there are some very sweet lighthearted places in the piece itself.

I have a dear friend whose mother has dementia, but physically she’s in amazing shape. Her sister in law recently died and my friend, almost daily, has to tell her the sad news over again. It’s challenging.

MS: Yes, I used to play at a church that I attended and there was a man who died. When the widow came in and she walked up to the casket she was devastated. I remember thinking, “Didn’t they tell this poor woman that her husband died?” But she of course had been told. I didn’t know at the time she was at the beginning of Alzheimer’s, and she would have to be told again and again, and it was new to her every time!

You’ve both been on Philadelphia’s stages numerous times before. What make Philadelphia, and Opera Philadelphia specifically, so special do you think?

MS: Well I think one of the things that makes Opera Philadelphia special is David Devan.

FvS: Yes, David. Three cheers!

MS: His vision for the company. This opera company has a real mission to be a part of the Philadelphia community and I think that’s really fantastic. His leadership has really changed this company’s role and who they are in the community.

FvS: And also who they are also in the opera community. I mean, it’s an honor to be asked to sing here. To be asked to be a part of it. People really want to do it because of the innovation. That’s a big chunk of where opera is going.

MS: When you think of the trend of art being a part of a community, and art having a social impact, Opera Philadelphia comes right to mind.

FvS: Also the company treats us so beautifully. They are super organized and we are taken care of so wonderfully. It’s almost like going to an “Opera Spa!” (They both laugh)

MS: Yes, exactly! That’s a great idea. A spa.

FvS: Maybe that’s coming. A few years ago I was doing an opera here and I always had my dog Hannah with me. On opening night in my dressing room, I think there was one rose for me and all the rest were presents for Hannah! That really goes straight to my heart.

You sound like you have become fast friends. Have you worked with together before?

MS: No and that’s part of the joy of getting this show!

FvS: Same here! Years ago I saw Marietta in a fantastic performance in The Glimmer Glass and it was terrific. I think she stole the show! And I was so happy to get back and see you!

MS: Listen, that same weekend Flicka gave a Master Class and in that class she was so sweet and so kind to the kids there.

FvS: The level of artistry there. These kids that are coming along. I just keep reiterating, I’m just glad they weren’t around when I was starting my career. They are prepared, they’re musicians, and their voices are something else. It’s all so exciting.

MS: Even with all of that, I’ve been in many master classes with great singers and world-class artists, such as Miss von Stade, and so many of them make it about themselves but she didn’t. She made that class about the singers and was so inviting and really let them shine and become better. She is just like that on stage.

FvS: Aww, thank you.

I have to ask. Where does your nickname Flicka come from?

FvS: I’m in a family of Fredrick’s. My grandmother’s Fredericka. I have an Uncle Freddie, on both sides. And anyone who isn’t a Freddy is a Teddy! So I think they had trouble with my identity. My friend, a little boy, had a pony named Flicka, named after the horse in the book “My Friend Flicka.” So I became Flicka!

Do you have any advice for the next generation?

FvS: Just believe in yourself, and don’t beat yourself up! Singers more than any other musicians tend to pick on themselves. You know? “I need to do that. That note was flat. That was sharp.” Pick, pick, pick. Just be kind to yourself. Because if you are kind to yourself that will reflect in your voice and your person. There is no path, no “sure path,” so much of it is luck. Much more than anyone realizes it. Being at the right place, at the right time, singing the right stuff.

MS: Same, same, same. Be the colleague you would like to have.

FvS and MS: YES! Exactly!

Sky on Swings can be seen in the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia until Sept. 29, 2018. Tickets at operaphila.org. And September is Alzheimer’s awareness month.