As often happens, the tale of the many is best told by the few.
In Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” those few might include your mother. Your grandmother. Or maybe your grandfather, or his father. Almost half of the U.S. population can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. Their story is our history.
Boyer’s dramatic spoken-word piece for orchestra and actors, which airs on public television Friday evening, tells the story of seven immigrants who came to America during the years 1910–40, and found welcome and refuge here. It is not the story of immigration, and welcome, that we are reading about in today’s news.
Boyer, who was born in Providence, has created many musical treatments of historical events. His uplifting “The Dream Lives On,” a 2010 commission by the Boston Pops, narrates the lives of the three Kennedy brothers. His tone poem “Titanic” evokes the sinking of that unsinkable vessel.
“Ellis Island” was written in 2002, commissioned by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and has subsequently been performed almost 200 times. Among those performances, it was the centerpiece of the Pacific Symphony’s program, in Costa Mesa, CA, with a cast of notable actors in March, 2017, and that concert will be part of the Great Performances broadcast that will be seen Friday evening on 340 public television affiliates. Excerpts from “Ellis Island” will also be part of the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on July 3 and 4 on the Esplanade.
Boyer, who has a bachelor’s degree from Rhode Island College and subsequently took a Ph.D at the Hartt School, nows lives in southern California. His work has been commissioned by dozens of orchestras, and he has many successful recordings, including one of “Ellis Island” with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra.
He began work on “Ellis Island” “before the world changed, at 9/11,” as he puts it, studying materials from the Ellis Island Oral History project. The project documented the stories of more than 2000 immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island in the early part of the 20th century.
“I looked through more than 100 interviews, and chose 20 finalists,” Boyer says. “I finally settled on seven stories. I had written a number of pieces based on history, and mythology, but this turned out to be larger than I imagined.”
“Ellis Island” tells the various stories of four young women and three young men. It focuses on anecdotes of their voyages across the Atlantic. James Apanowith came from Greece in 1911, at age 16. Lazarus Salamon was 16 as well when he traveled from war-torn Hungary in 1920. Helen Rosenthal was 30 when she fled the Nazis in 1940. Lillian Galletta wasn’t even five when she came from Russia in 1928.
“There were certain stories I knew had to be included,” Boyer says. “Lillian Galletta, traveling with her four siblings and being reunited with her father at Ellis Island, it was just so moving.”
Galletta was the only immigrant who was still alive when Boyer wrote the work. Her appearance, along with all of the siblings who made the voyage with her, at the “Ellis Island” premiere in Hartford’s Bushnell Auditorium in 2002, still brings out a wealth of emotions for Boyer.
“After I wrote the piece, before the premiere, I found out she was still alive and I called her up,” Boyer says. “She asked to hear some of the music. I played it for her on the piano, over the phone. She was crying, and I was crying.
“Then, when the Bushnell arranged for them all to be at the premiere, and she came out on the stage after the performance—that was one of the most remarkable events that any composer could experience.”
The performance broadcast is remarkable as well. Seven actors— Barry Bostwick, Camryn Manheim, Michael Nouri, Lesley Fera, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Samantha Sloyan and Kira Sternbach—realize the parts. Boyer’s score is unabashedly accessible, American in style, reminiscent of the best from Copland, Bernstein, or John Williams.
“I chose to use actors—not narrators,” Boyer says. “I wanted the audience to believe they were hearing the actual person speaking. The actor says, ‘I was dreaming to come to America,’ not, ‘Let me tell you about Lillian Galletta.’ ”
And what “Ellis Island” tells you should not be forgotten. All of these immigrants have stories that bring startling clarity to the issues that dominate today’s headlines. As Lazarus Salamon said, remembering his first chaotic days in America, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, “We’re all strangers. It’s only a matter of time, who got here first.”
“Ellis Island: The Dream of America” airs on PBS’s Great Performances on Friday, June 29, at 10:00 p.m. The performance runs locally on WGBH.