When Lembit Beecher was named composer-in-residence with the Opera Company of Philadelphia (in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group of New York) in 2011, he didn’t bring a large portfolio of operatic work with him to the brand new three-year program. An instinct and affection for storytelling, however, already infused his compositions. Though he clarifies that he doesn’t often approach a piece programmatically, his music—whether for the operatic stage or for piano trio—often begins on a strongly emotional level, and its development is focused on how various elements interact and play off one another to achieve balance.
Raised in California with strong ties to his mother’s Estonian heritage and native language, Beecher went on to earn degrees at Harvard, Rice, and the University of Michigan—schools, he says, that seemed “pleasantly outside the loop” in that students were free to pursue their own interests, absent particular ideologies. Once he realized that even though he loved playing the piano, he didn’t love practicing, his focus began to shift towards writing his own music. “I don’t think I’m one of those composers who’s felt that I always had to be a composer,” Beecher admits, “but I’ve always been unhappy unless I was making something.”
He found himself particularly attracted to the subtle shadings that music can bring to the expression of emotion. “It’s seldom ambiguous but it’s always nuanced,” he explains, “and there’s always a sense of an emotion being incredibly deep and varied. More than writing or painting, it’s what speaks to me most vividly.”
He can follow this braid of music, emotion, and storytelling back to a childhood spent listening to his grandmother’s accounts of the occupation of her native Estonia, tales he equates with scenes straight out of a Hollywood movie. He built And Then I Remember, a 50-minute chamber opera, around the memories she shared. It’s a piece he describes as a “documentary oratorio—a combination of This American Life, Different Trains, and maybe a little bit of Les Noces thrown in there.”
By mixing recordings of her actual voice from interviews he conducted with instrumental portions and sung sections built out of arrangements of selected phrases, he was able to capture the “sense of legend” he felt as a child. “It doesn’t matter if all the facts are true [in the musical representation]; there’s something deeper that’s being expressed.”
Beecher has taken these lessons and is now applying them to his opera residency work. Not all stories translate well to the form. For Beecher, the best sources are not necessarily found in plays or novels, though admittedly he finds it hard to generalize. “Part of the challenge is not just what stories, but what parts of stories can best be expressed,” he explains. “Personally, the stories I’m drawn to have emotional clarity and deeply felt emotions.” Opera provides a way for him to frame those feelings for an audience.
It’s a task that he notes is particularly challenging when dealing with contemporary audiences likely to be turned off by the overt displays of sentiment common to the genre. Opera can be powerfully expressive, but as a result it can too easily come off as fake to a cynical consumer. It can’t compete with movies or even the straight drama when it comes to expressing reality, Beecher points out. However, “what opera can do is express an emotional reality that is in some way more true to our experience. The audience can then come along for the ride realizing that this is part of an inner experience of the world, rather than trying to show us what the world looks like from the outside.”
By putting on display what is rattling around inside our heads rather than flashing before our eyes, the listener accesses an experience that opera—even in an age of CGI and reality TV—is still perhaps especially suited to revealing.