The Oxford English dictionary defines Operatic as, “Extravagantly theatrical; overly dramatic.”
There was nothing extravagant or overly dramatic in one of the most innovative operas to premier this summer. The Summer Case focuses on the trials of siblings Bobby and Willow Summers. Overburdened social worker Dasha Jones tries to help the children, but encounters numerous obstacles.
“Small, grounded plots aren’t uncommon for recent opera,” Swire says. “It was a goal to reveal a more modest, accessible side to classical music and bulldoze away the myth that it’s an elitist fortress just for rich, old, white people.”
In fact, as Swire envisioned her work, half the characters are meant to be cast as minorities. A deliberate decision on the composer’s part, which, “allows new listeners to relate and artists of color to have real roles in ways previous operas rarely permitted.”
In The Summer Case, the Summers children are left to the mercy of Florida’s foster care system after their mother succumbs to illness. The children’s father, presumably, has abandoned them. Their grandmother, Vera, wants to adopt them, but the halfway house refuses to release custody of the children. Due to her age and financial instability, Vera is not an eligible candidate.
Uncle Jimmy and his partner, Shannon, offer to adopt the two. They are a loving couple, financially well off and live in scenic Illinois, but there is a catch: Shannon is a man. At the time the opera was composed, Florida had very strict laws against adoption by same sex couples.
(Even after legalizing same sex adoption last year, the Florida refused to print both mother’s names on a birth certificate issued by the state. This controversy coincided with the premiere of The Summer Case.)
The family struggles to gain custody of the Summers children, while overcrowding threatens to push them into foster homes. Despite having two willing, loving relatives to claim them, the children remain snared in the system.
Regardless of recent reforms in LGBT law, the topics of same sex marriage and adoption are still hot button issues, ones very personal to Sonnet Swire.
“I grew up in Florida, and my mother had friends who were a lovely lesbian couple that struggled to adopt children,” Swire explains. “I remember their sadness when they revealed that they couldn’t adopt, or even foster children, due to their ‘status’. I remember thinking that all these children wouldn’t care about lesbian moms as long as they weren’t living out of a suitcase.”
Considering how overburdened the foster care system already is, such obstacles are vexing to many who simply wish to lend a helping hand. Swire, herself, spent a brief period of time in the foster care system and explained that her writing of The Summer Case stemmed from the festering anger and mistrust of a system she experienced firsthand.
Her time in foster care was, thankfully, no more than two weeks. However, Swire knows it is more common for foster children to spend months, even years, in the emotionally taxing system.
“I shudder at the thought of what that would be like and the trauma they must face as they grow up.”
Though the system tries its best, and has made great strides in recent years, it is a less than ideal situation for hundreds of thousands of children. It concerns Swire that the level of care provided to foster children varies wildly from state to state. Many children are left disenfranchised by the very system that promises them a future.
“I remain in contact with friends who were in foster care that struggle to be a contributing part of society – whether it’s financial stability, health issues, or substance abuse. I could never understand why a child’s future is at the mercy of their guardians and the state they happen to live in.”
For Swire, this is why The Summer Case, and the audience she hopes her work will reach, are so important. The opera reveals a dark and complicated underworld that many attendees may not even be aware exists. It reminds us we all have the power to reach out to our community and state leaders, to reach out to those already involved in foster care and to reach out to the children, themselves.
“I would hope my work helps this process by awakening the senses and allowing empathy in the listener,” Swire urges. “Cut the kids some slack.”
After successfully premiering her opera at the New England Conservatory, Swire has received much attention and praise for her work. In appreciation of The Summer Case, she was awarded the 7,500$ Charles Ives scholarship for composition students, “of great promise.” Currently, Swire continues to study with composer John Heiss.
When asked about her plans for the future, Swire confirmed that she is already hard at work on an upcoming piece. This one, she says, will focus on, “the massive overhaul of colleges by the federal government…and public pressure to change how they address sexual assault and dating violence.”
Article in the NEC’s HuffPost blog about The Summer Case:
Reflections On A Composer’s First Opera