Lake Erie's problems set to music in 'Voice of the Lake'

Nov 14, 2017

It may be hard to imagine a composer being inspired by public hearings and court cases. But Lake Erie and its problems take center stage in a new oratorio from Cleveland composer Margaret Brouwer.


Picture a stage full of people – choirs of children and adults, rows of musicians, four soloists, and a conductor all performing a piece of music. Here, the real star of Voice of the Lake is Lake Erie.

The piece premiered Sunday, and it’s all about the beauty of the lake, and the people who use it for recreation and commerce. But there’s more: a polluted past, toxic algae blooms and contaminated sediment being dumped into the lake.

Composer Margaret Brouwer started working on the piece a couple of years ago.

“I’d read in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about all the issues, the algae, and then the big conflict about whether to dump the dredged bottom of the Cuyahoga River into the lake,” she says. “I just started thinking it would make a great musical drama.”

She even uses testimony from public hearings on the dredging of the Cuyahoga River, including a statement from Rep. Marcia Fudge, who represents Greater Cleveland.

“I use the transcripts because they told the story better than I could do myself,” Brouwer says.  “It’s all actually pretty factual information.”

Angela Mitchell, who performed the soprano role in the premiere, describes a part of the piece known as The Public Hearing: “At one point the tenor comes in, and is acting as the Army Corps of Engineers person, and the soprano comes back saying, 'No we need to care for this natural resource -- we cannot just keep dumping this dredged river bottom in the lake.'” 

In reality, that drama is over for now. A federal judge has ordered the Corps of Engineers to place dredged sediment into containers instead of the lake. 

But there’s still the issue of cleaning up decades of pollution and stopping new pollution.  Brouwer tackles this with a visual presentation.  As the instrumental ensemble plays, projected images show the effects of pollution: closed beaches, slimy-looking green algae, brown water traveling to a sewer.

The video also shows efforts to reduce pollution, including neighborhoods building rain gardens to slow the flow of water into sewers, rivers, and lakes.  There’s a slide about the region’s new storage tunnels that limit sewer overflows during storms. And there’s a photo of a farm that uses techniques to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality.

The piece ends with a sunrise on the lake -- birds singing and the children’s choir wondering if the water will be clean enough to swim.

Conductor Domenico Boyagian says Voice of the Lake is a way for classical music – and its fans – to help restore Lake Erie. “Everyone has their own way of being able to approach the situation – either watch where you throw your plastic, or don’t pollute the river if you’re a corporation, or let’s write a piece about it and let people know what’s going on.” 

Right now the piece stands as an oratorio, which is kind of like a staged reading or a concert – there are no costumes, props, or sets.  But Brouwer initially imagined the piece as an opera, and still might write it as one.

She also wants to see the piece performed elsewhere.

“There are lakes with very similar problems in other parts of the country, and also in China,” she says.  “There’s always the hope that this might get some more performances many places." 

Cleveland poet David Adams, who wrote several lines of Voice of the Lake’s libretto, wants audiences to walk away thinking about the lake – and not taking it for granted. 

“If just gets them thinking about what the lake means to each person, that kind of awareness can build into something much larger.”