What makes an American?
The melting pot, one used to say—Americans are an amalgam of all the citizens who came here to create a new life. That notion once seemed stable and true, but has now become clouded by anger and division.
Onstage with the Cape Symphony Orchestra, in its season opening performances this weekend, there is no doubt, no division, no anger. Americans come from many places, and Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” a multimedia work for actors and orchestra, makes sure we remember that.
Boyer’s work has a fascinating history. The composer, a Rhode Island native who now lives in southern California, was inspired by the Ellis Island Oral History project, which documented the arrival of 2000 travelers to America between 1910 and 1940.
Boyer chose seven stories—“some of them had to be heard,” he says—from that wealth of narratives. He chose to set them for individual actors and orchestra—along with video and pictures of their arrival.
“I wanted actors to tell the story, not to play a part,” he says. “I wanted you to believe you were hearing the story, not hearing someone tell the story. The actor says, ‘I was dreaming to come to America,’ not ‘Let me tell you about Lillian Galletta.’ ”
Lillian Galletta—just five when she came from Russia in 1928—is just one of many whose first sight of America was the Statue of Liberty. All seven of Boyer’s subjects fled war, or famine, or oppression. All came to Ellis Island with just the possessions they carried, and made a life here.
“I conceived of ‘The Dream of America’ before 9/11,” Boyer says, “before the world changed. There’s no way I could anticipate what happened in the world. It turned out to be bigger than I imagined.”
And how. “The Dream of America” has seen more than 200 performances since its debut with the Hartford Symphony in 2002. An airing of a performance this June was heard on well over 300 PBS affiliates across the country. Just this week alone, there are three performances—besides the Cape Symphony Orchestra’s—in other cities.
“Musically, I made a decision not to incorporate ethnic music into the work,” he says. “I didn’t think the piece would cohere at all. I wrote the music that comes to me naturally—influences from Copland, from Bernstein, and Williams. That’s my sensibility.”
On a personal note for the composer, one of the seven actors who will portray the immigrants’ stories is Boyer’s mother, Sandy Cerel. She reprises the role of Lillian Galletta, that five-year-old who came to Ellis Island from Russia.
“There are certain things you have to hear, I felt,” he says. “Lillian was reunited with her father at Ellis Island. When they meet, and you hear her voice break and she starts to cry—it’s a really genuine moment.”
Music director Jung-Ho Pak’s program also features composers whose intersection with America was fruitful and central to their own lives. Works from Stravinsky, Ernest Bloch, Franz Waxman and Bright Sheng make “melting pot” a musical idea, not just a social one. The Cotuit Center for the Arts, and the Chatham Chorale under the direction of Joseph Marcio, join in the opening weekend presentation.
The Cape Symphony Orchestra opens its 2018–19 season on Sept. 22 and 23 at the Barnstable Performing Arts Center. For tickets and information visit www.capesymphony.org or call 508-362-1111.