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Lili Tobias '19 & Fellow Swarthmore Alums Premiere Chamber Opera "Apple Of My Eye"

Lili Tobias '19

What would you do for an apple? The chamber opera Apple Of My Eye, with words by Rebecca Regan ‘19 and music by Lili Tobias ‘19, takes place in a near future where apples have gone extinct. When a scientist engineers apples back into existence, people wait for hours to get their hands on one. The story follows a mother and child waiting in line for one of the first new apples. The opera is structured in four acts; as the sun gets hotter and the child gets crankier, the mother finds herself rationalizing her deep desire to taste an apple. 

The production of Apple of my Eye premiered on Saturday, February 10th in Appel Hall at Hunter College in New York City — Video of the full performance can be viewed here. In addition to the writers, the production is full of Swarthmore alumni, including Hannah Cai Sobel '22 singing the role of ‘The Kid,’ with Simon Moore '22, Gene Witkowski '21, and Nathaniel Ziv Stern '20 singing in the chorus. 

“Most of the Swatties who are performing in the production grew up in NYC and just moved back home after graduating like I did. We've been hanging out and doing other music things together for the past couple years! Naturally, they were some of the first people I thought of when I was in the process of finding singers for my opera. In particular, I had Hannah in mind for the role of the Kid from the very beginning, so I essentially wrote the role for their voice.” Tobias said.

Rebecca Regan wrote the story in the form of a one-act play for the Playwright’s festival in their senior year, but when Tobias suggested that it would make a great opera, the two began to reimagine it. They then started writing in March of 2020. “It was kind of like our pandemic project,” Tobias remarked. 

Tobias first became interested in opera when her grandmother took her to see The Marriage of Figaro at age nine. At Swarthmore, she planned to major in linguistics but switched to music after experiencing the department’s welcoming atmosphere. Tobias participated in Chorus, Garnet Singers, the Fetter Chamber Music Program, and the Lunch Hour Concert Series. She studied composition with Gerald Levinson and Tom Whitman ’82. 

“One of my favorite things I did were the Parrish Lunch Hour Concerts. I enjoyed sharing interesting music with the community . . . I generally performed music by women composers, which was new to most of the audience. Those concerts were also a great space to perform music that I composed!” she recalled. Tobias’s lunch hour concert from 2018 can be viewed here.

Tobias also wrote and produced a chamber opera called The Yellow Wallpaper while at Swarthmore, based on the Charlotte Perkins Gilmore short story of the same name. The experience acquainted Tobias with the entire process of creating an opera, from writing the music to all the logistical challenges associated with such a production.  

“I learned that it wasn't just about writing the music or singing the music, but it also included coordinating schedules, booking performance space, and all the other small logistical things! And that was just for a very small production, the one I'm working on now is much bigger with many more moving parts. But if I hadn't put on The Yellow Wallpaper at Swat, I would have been in way over my head for Apple Of My Eye!”

When putting this story to music, Tobias wanted to highlight voices that are not often represented in opera repertoire. The mother’s part in the play is written for a female baritone and the part of the scientist is written for a female tenor. 

“That was one of my main objectives when composing it, to find more opportunities for women and non-binary singers with low voices because there just aren’t any in the traditional opera world,” she said. Along with the cast of singers, the opera includes a string quartet made up of a violin, two violas, and a cello. 

In order to capture the story’s themes in the music, Tobias used melodic motives associated with the different characters and varying musical textures. The mother’s motif is nostalgic, as she looks back on her childhood before apples went extinct. Tremolos in the strings capture the oppressive heat and the heavy reality of climate change. 

Written, produced by and starring many Swatties, Apple Of My Eye is a story of climate change, nostalgia, memory, and the lengths we go to for seemingly mundane things.