The creative spark behind Philadelphia composer Lembit Beecher's latest opera, Sophia's Forest, was a 1949 photo of his Estonian-born mother, then age 7, clutching a teddy bear in a German displaced persons camp.
It hit him in an incredibly tense way, and as Sophia's Forest evolved with librettist Hannah Moscovitch, typical operatic sounds weren't enough for Beecher.
Thus, when the opera has its world premiere Friday and Saturday at Drexel University's URBN Center Annex, the stage will be filled with nine sound sculptures that give an ethereal, time-warping halo to the story, a fictionalized account of another young woman coming to terms with her immigrant past — this one after the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s.
The sound of the sculptures will collude with their imposing visual presence: Each mechanism is encased in black wire. "Burned-out trees. A war zone. Barbed wire. It's a soundscape of her world," said stage director Brian Staufenbiel.
"We began with this idea of a child interacting with her imagination. That was the kernel, and we had to have some way to make that come alive," said the 36-year-old Beecher. "When it's all working, you get this hum, singers interacting with it, stage action going on."
Though it would be a good fit for either the ongoing Philadelphia Fringe Festival or Opera Philadelphia's forthcoming O17 festival, Sophia's Forest isn't part of either. Much of the electronic apparatus was developed over the last year by graduate students at Drexel, which is a partner in the project.
Many of the sounds open up as part of a music box that's young Sophia's way of connecting with the sister she lost in the war. Some of the sculptures are basically mechanized glass harmonicas, with syringes of water moisturizing drinking glasses that are gently rubbed to create an eerie sound. Sure, it could be electronically sampled, but the opera team thought a certain otherworldly impact would be lost.
Other sound sculptures consist of bicycle wheels. They're more for percussive effects — played with metal rods hitting the spokes — and feel appropriate in a piece that drifts from present to past. "There's something about the whirling and clicking sounds that evoke childhood," said Beecher.
Although they are rendered through electronic means, the sounds are basically acoustic, which makes a seamless marriage possible between them and the string quartet that also accompanies the singers. "What's important is the fusion that Lembit has done with incredible string writing and percussion. They've created a chorus of overtones, which is hard to achieve," said Staufenbiel.
The composer also contributed to War Stories, a duo of one-act operas that is part of Opera Philadelphia's O17 Festival, with performances Sept. 16-23 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Beecher's half of that piece was written by the 17th century's Claudio Monteverdi, so Beecher composed for the instruments of that time.
In contrast, Sophia's Forest has a blue-chip lineup of artists experienced in new work. The star is Kiera Duffy, who had a major career breakthrough last season in Opera Philadelphia's Breaking the Waves. The Aizuri Quartet, locally based, has proved itself a group that seems ready for anything. Other members of the creative team are from the experimental Opera Parallele in San Francisco.
Ostensibly, the project and its unproved sound apparatus may not seem that attractive to such artists. But the dramatic content, with parallels to the current Syrian refugee crisis, drew those with a sense of theatrical adventure.
Last year for Breaking the Waves, the Philadelphia-born Duffy had to warn her extended family about the opera's hypersexual content. "This is another meaty, complicated female role, which are still sort of in short supply in the operatic canon," she said. "It's nice to sink my teeth into something emotionally and psychologically dense, which seems to be my M.O. these days. I'm doing these very tormented characters — and all in Philadelphia, too."
Performances at 8 p.m. Sept. 8 and 9 at Drexel University's URBN Center Annex, 3401 Filbert St.