Opera might not come to mind immediately when one thinks of how today’s artists are changing the narrative around living with Alzheimer’s disease, but to Lembit Beecher, it fit the bill perfectly.
“Opera is the perfect medium,” says Beecher, an opera and classical music composer, “because even when words fail, one’s inner life doesn’t. People’s emotions are present, and what you hear in opera is their internal landscape.”
Beecher, together with librettist Hannah Moscovitch and director Joanna Settle, is the creator of Sky on Swings, a full-length opera focused on Martha and Danny, two modern women in different stages of Alzheimer’s disease who meet and befriend each other in the nursing home where they now live.
Both Danny and Martha can sing their feelings, even if their dementia would otherwise make communication impossible. This allows the audience to enter their emotional world, to connect viscerally with their internal reality and appreciate the beauty they are experiencing as their friendship grows.
“I wanted the audience to live in Martha and Danny’s minds, to be in that place where things often slip through your fingers,” says Beecher, “Sometimes that can be threatening, but also sometimes beautiful, especially when not always trying to remember, just living in the moment.”
Beecher utilizes a chorus of six other characters. They musically inject some of the confusion that plagues those with dementia through vocal effects, words that come and go without context and mumbling in the background; allowing the audience insight into Martha and Danny’s disease.
While Beecher didn’t have previous close experience with dementia, once he began to talk about his work, everyone suddenly had a story to tell.
“They were able to talk about this thing they had not been able to before,” he says, “there are these vast experiences that don’t get to the public sphere like other diseases do, and that needs to change.”
Beecher says that music has always done a good job of expressing things like romantic love, grief and death. But there isn’t so much about aging, the way people change as they get older, and that’s what drew him to the topic.
“Historically, opera never really centered on the aging character,” says Beecher, “there was a witch, or maybe a queen, but that older person was always a foil to the younger lives. I’m interested in works of art that center on older people and their relationships, not just compared with a younger person’s life.”
Sky on Swings was commissioned and performed by Opera Philadelphia in 2018, by Opera Saratoga in 2022, and was finalist for Best World Premiere at the 2019 International Opera Awards.
Lembit Beecher received undergraduate or music degrees from Harvard University, Rice University and the University of Michigan. He lives in New York City.