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Alzheimer's opera 'Sky on Swings' opens in Philadelphia

This Sept. 12, 2018 photo released by Opera Philadelphia, Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, in foreground, rehearses the role of Martha in the new opera "Sky on Swings" premiering as part of Opera Philadelphia's O18 Festival. (Dave DiRentis/Opera Philadelphia via AP)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — When Opera Philadelphia launched a radical new programming format last year, general director David Devan knew there was "a potential for an emperor has no clothes."

The idea was to create a festival of innovative work that packed five different operas — three of them world premieres — into 10 days of virtually nonstop activity.

"There were so many moving parts, we didn't know if we could pull it off," Devan said in an interview earlier this month. "So there was a lot of fear around belly-flopping."

In fact, O17 was a critical and box-office success. Audiences were enthusiastic, and Devan was especially heartened by the fact that 18 percent of those attending were 29 or younger — the same percentage as those 70 or older. F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News, called the concept "a brilliant way for a company to define itself," while Anne Midgette wrote in The Washington Post that it was "one of the most enjoyable additions to the fall calendar in years."

But success in a freshman venture is one thing, and Devan knew it would be a tall order to ensure this year's edition — O18, which runs Sept. 20-30 — lived up to the first. "We've actually used the term 'sophomore slump' to make sure there was no slump in the sophomore," he said.

Ironically, his board had worried the first edition was "too edgy," and Devan had agreed to make O18 "softer," more conventional. But audience feedback told him that would be a mistake. So O18 is possibly even more adventurous — in a different way.

"Last year was about a celebration of composers," Devan said. "This year we have the added dimension of performing artists as creators, which is something our world doesn't ever explore."

Most of the lineup for O18 had already been sketched out when Devan decided to change direction. "I went back to all the artists and I basically said, 'You know what we contracted you to do? If you could rethink that, what would you do?' We basically gave them the keys and said, 'You figure it out.'"

For example, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was signed to headline a nightclub drag act, but rather than doing it as a standard open mic performance, Devan said, "She came up with the idea of doing it as a serial," each of three evenings advancing a scripted plotline. Soprano Patricia Racette was engaged to perform Poulenc's monodrama "La voix humaine," in which a desperate woman talks to her ex-lover over the telephone for the last time. But instead of doing it as a stand-alone, she and her collaborators devised an opening half set in a cabaret with added characters to let the audience better connect with the protagonist.

Another work, "Glass/Handel," grew out of a conversation with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who had just recorded a CD mixing arias by the 18th century's George Frideric Handel and the contemporary Philip Glass. Costanzo produced a multimedia show that includes choreography by Justin Peck to be performed at the Barnes Foundation art museum.

The sole new opera this year is composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch's "Sky on Swings," a touching story of two women with Alzheimer's disease whose memory loss ends up enriching their lives by bringing them together. The roles are sung by Frederica von Stade and Marietta Simpson, two illustrious mezzos who are nearing the age of their characters.

"We reached out to them on a lark and they both said yes," Devan said. "And they both came to the workshop, bringing their wisdom and experience and their vulnerability of going onstage again."

The fifth and final production, as last year, is an opera from the standard repertory. Donizetti's tragic "Lucia di Lammermoor" starring soprano Brenda Rae, is being presented in a new production by Laurent Pelly, best known for his inventive work on comedies. Later in the season the company will produce two more mainstream works for its regular subscribers, Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme."

As this year launches, so does a $75 million fundraising campaign, needed to keep the company in good shape through 2023.

"What we want is to build a tradition so people say, 'Oh, I'm not flying to Europe this September because I'm going to O,'" Devan said. "We know it will take three to four to five years to do that.

"Ultimately," he said, "our intention is that people can come to Philadelphia once a year, and touch the future of opera."

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