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Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade in Sky on Swings, a chamber opera about the relationship between two women with Alzheimer’s.Steven Pisano

The American composer Lembit Beecher and the Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch first met on our side of the border, in Toronto, at one of Tapestry Opera’s creation intensives in 2012.

But while the two have been collaborating ever since, only American audiences have been able to see their full-length works since then. Until now.

Sky on Swings, a chamber opera about the relationship between two women with Alzheimer’s composed by Beecher with a libretto by Moscovitch, premiered at Opera Philadelphia in 2018 – and is now available to stream around the world for free on YouTube until the end of August as part of that company’s new digital festival.

While there has been a steady stream of plays written about dementia over the past decade, the use of music to explore the subject makes Sky on Swings stand out. In terms of theatre, it’s probably closest to the French playwright Florian Zeller’s worldwide hit The Father, in how it tries to show an audience the world through the perspective of someone losing their memory.

Beecher, who is married to the Canadian cellist Karen Ouzounian, explained to me how he tried to capture the way characters with Alzheimer’s might experience the world in his score. “I wanted to write music that is unstable, unpredictable, has an element of the chaotic to it, but also sounds like it should be familiar and then slips away,” he said, over the phone from New York. “Some of that means using repetition, but breaking off with slight changes … or bringing back different gestures and melodies, often in a different context.”

Sky on Swings was set to have a second production this summer at Opera Saratoga, a nearly 60-year-old arts festival that has, of course, cancelled its programming this year. No Canadian production is planned as of yet.

When opera returns, will they produce big, formerly reliable hits in an attempt to bring crowds back, or present new works that are often more affordable to produce because of smaller casts and orchestras?

Mezzo-soprano Simpson plays Martha.Steven Pisano

Toronto’s interdisciplinary Canadian Stage company has started to upload content online to a new portal it is calling CS Grid. Its offerings so far include video classes (like one uploaded yesterday featuring playwright Jordan Tannahill) and Zoom parties (like this forthcoming Friday’s Essential Play, a partnership with the SummerWorks Festival, from 9 p.m. to 12 p.m. ET).

But CS Grid will also showcase some filmed performances, too – and, on Thursday, choreographer/performer Bill Coleman’s Dollhouse, a dance piece that Canadian Stage first presented in 2016 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, will be available to stream there until Saturday. This “unclassifiable, very funny and often mesmerizing” show (as critic Martha Schabas described it in her review) was last on stage at Vancouver’s Scotiabank Dance Centre in March right before it and other venues started to shut across Canada.

While many performing arts companies are giving away digital content for free right now, others are also seeing what kind of market there is to sell performances online.

The Stratford Festival, which would be having its opening week right now if it were not for the pandemic, is actually doing both.

The repertory festival’s free film festival continues on Thursday with its 2015 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost directed by the Canadian-born English director John Caird. (Here’s my review.) And the festival has also, today, released its film of artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s 2019 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor through the Cineplex Store – where you can rent it for $19.99. (Here’s my review.)

Why pay for the Bard when you can get his plays for free? Well, it has always been the case that different Stratford fans might pay $155 (that’s the top ticket price) or $68 (the average ticket price) or $29 (the lowest, senior matinee rate) to see the same production live – or pay $19.95 to see it later in a movie theatre, or nothing at all to see it even later on CBC. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if “renting” a Stratford production catches on.

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