Opera Philadelphia Explores Opera as Mental Health Drama

By Adam J. Sacks

Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia


The Philadelphia Opera Festival, only in its second year, has already received such acclaim one would think it has been a mainstay of the American musical landscape for at least several years. And while it has certainly staked out new ground in terms of site specific performance that integrates with urban topography in new and exciting ways, the festival has also proved itself as a leading staging ground for new opera as well as powerhouse productions of old standards. So while new operatic experiments might take place in the Barnes Museum, a rock club or the famous “rocky steps,” the festival can also fully execute in more traditional venues, the august Academy of Music and the state of the art Kimmel Performance Center. With arresting vitality, each entry in these categories for this year’s festival, “Sky on Swings” and “Lucia di Lammermoor,” respectively, speak to contemporary concerns while breaking new ground and putting a new shine on the classics.

Last year’s festival’s world premiere production of We Shall Not Be Moved, broadcast on screen again for the selection of opera on the historical National Independence Hall Mall (UNESCO heritage site) dramatized the haunting of a city by an unprecedented act of violence. What looms over both Philadelphia as a city and the characters in the opera is the almost unprecedented act of state violence in the city of Philadelphia against the idiosyncratic Afrocentric urban commune “MOVE.” In this production, the stunning choreography of Bill T Jones made convincing ballet out of the acrobatics of the violence of the “ghetto” and forces viewers to reconsider where beauty might loom amidst urban decay.

This year’s premiere of Sky on Swings composed by Lembit Beeher with a libretto by Hannah Moscovitch, accomplishes parallel feats of achieving aesthetic beauty for a different sort of creeping epidemic which the U.S. may have to face in years to come, that of Alzheimer’s. Set in a visually greyscale world that unfolds in and around a new concept facility for palliative care stage for the disease, the opera pairs the stories of two elderly mothers and their grown children whose lives become intertwined over the rapid pace of this one-act “pocket opera.” The aesthetic of their changing clothing actually plots the course of the disease from colorful to more grey and back again. Another striking design innovation is the large neon squiggly bar of light hanging from the ceiling which project and shadow shifting shapes of words on the back wall, simple words of every day life which begin to elude the protagonists. The 11-piece chamber orchestra reflects cubist influences of Berg and the sound baths of Glass, but most impressively wields silence which grows in intensity throughout the work. The over reliance on solo clarinet and piano, while compelling, does evoke the stock soundtrack of the uncanny or even of horror. The musical masterstroke of the work however is the “mumble choir” of the surrounding patients, whose murmuring voices provides an entry point into the growing mental chaos of the two women who are the central characters.

At bottom this work too is a love story, as a result of a complex journey of recovered memory and repressed affect. The intertwining of the two main characters, opposites in many ways in terms of their response to the albatross of the disease and its oncoming symptoms, poignantly conveys a central message. Alzheimer’s robs the victim of a sense of home in their home and that to relocate some sense of groundedness their families, and perhaps society at large, may have to help them on a journey that brings them to a very different place, both physically and emotionally.

If “Sky” frames illness in a strikingly holistic and inclusive manner and depicts not only psychological depth, but also medical regimes with their broader social and familial effects, Lucia di Lammermoor is all about a madness straight mined for romantic sensationalism. After two centuries, Donizetti’s stalwart of the operatic repertory basically everywhere, still has the power to shock. This new production admirably helmed by Laurent Pelly, named best director at 2016 International Opera Awards, and soprano Brenda Rae, brings a heightened level of historical specificity to the staging and the music.

From the moment the curtain is unveiled, the audience can almost feel the frost wafting from the stage, which depicts the snow-covered hills of the Scottish Highlands, covered in continual grey and non-stop snowfall. This sense of icy isolation mirrors that which grips Lucia, who for all of her youth, beauty and wealth, has no allies in a society where women are a pawn in the power plays of men.

Ahead of its time in the depiction of secularization of marriage as well as a kind of mental manipulation we might now call ‘gaslighting’, the momentum of any production of “Lucia” ultimately culminates in the infamous “mad scene” of Act II by which it is also most often judged by its audience. Musically for this scene, this production resurrects the historically accurate glass harmonica, instead of the flute, so unsettling and otherworldly and also fitting for a city that houses America’s oldest once owned by Benjamin Franklin. The logistics of the staging for this scene of a bloodied and ripped wedding dress, perhaps the original “red wedding,” unfortunately create obstacles for dramatic acting. “Lucia” remains perched on the same snowy hillside there since the beginning of the opera which puts her off-center, while the chairs aligned on stage for the wedding fence her in. While this staging could have symbolic significance, it does not effectuate the “unleashing” suggested by the music. Yet this slightly clinical “Lucia,” when considered alongside “Sky,” reveals an opera company well-equipped and committed to push the conversation forward about medicine, mental health and the arts.

Adam J Sacks holds a PhD from the Department of History at Brown University. He holds a Masters of Arts from Brown University, a Masters of Science (High Honors) from the City College of the City University of New York, and a Bachelor of Arts, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University.