Carl St. Clair and Pacific Symphony performing “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” | Photo by Photos by Stan Sholik/Joshua Sudock/Pacific Symphony
On Friday, June 29, PBS stations will broadcast Pacific Symphony’s performance of Peter Boyer’s Ellis Island: The Dream of America. The program, part of the Great Performances series, honors Immigrant Heritage Month.
Ellis Island has been called composer Peter Boyer’s masterwork, “a dream of a piece,” “a work of rare authenticity and directness.” Boyer says that the piece was born out of his fascination with the relationship between history and music. “I’m drawn to good stories,” he says, “especially stories which come from the past but are relevant to the present.” He found compelling stories at Ellis Island.
In the years of its operation, from 1892 to 1954, more than twelve million immigrants passed through Ellis Island. Twelve million! Today, more than 40% of the U.S. population, over 100 million Americans, can trace their roots to an ancestor who came through Ellis Island.
Boyer says that “the stories of Ellis Island immigrants are in many ways our family stories: whether they are the tales of our grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, or friends, so many Americans can relate to these experiences as part of our collective history. This is what makes Ellis Island stories so fascinating, and it’s what drew me to this material as the basis of a major composition.”
In creating the work, Boyer knew that he wanted to combine spoken word with the orchestra. When he began his research, he discovered something that would define the nature of the piece: the Ellis Island Oral History Project, a collection of interviews with immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island. Boyer knew he had found the source from which his texts would be drawn: real words of real people telling their own stories. Boyer puts those stories in the mouths of actors and he stresses that they are not “narrators” or “speakers,” but actors. They deliver their monologues in the first person.
These are the words of Lillian Galletta, an Italian immigrant. She was only four years old when she came to the U.S., but she recalls a very powerful moment after her arrival at Ellis Island in 1928:
And these are the words of Lazarus Salamon, who emigrated from Hungary in 1920:
In addition to actors, performances also feature projected images.