Composer Michael Hersch, who battled cancer in 2007 at age 36, was composing an elegy to a close friend who died of ovarian cancer at 45 when he got the news: His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"It was such a surreal experience," Hersch said. "There are a lot of collisions that are hard to explain. This is not a normal situation. We're talking about people getting cancer in their 30s and 40s."
Hersch’s elegy to his friend, titled "I hope we get a chance to visit soon," premieres Friday night at the Ojai Music Festival. The composer said that while he was writing the music, his wife's daily life as a patient began mirroring the email correspondence from his friend, historian Mary O'Reilly. Her messages, from the onset of her cancer in 2003 until her death in 2009, serve as the primary text of the libretto.
"I hope we get a chance to visit soon" also uses poetry by astronomer and writer Rebecca Elson, who died in 1999 at age 39 of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Hersch also takes fragments from the poetry of the late Christopher Middleton.
"Through words, Middleton was doing what I wish to accomplish in music," Hersch said. "There's something about the concision."
Hersch's "I hope we get a chance to visit soon" employs two sopranos (the Ojai premiere features Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy) and nine members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra led by Tito Muñoz.
In his 2012 monodrama, "On the Threshold of Winter," Hersch also dealt with serious illness and death, conflating his and O'Reilly's two concurrent experiences, while also adapting texts from "The Bridge" by the late Romanian poet Marin Sorescu, who died of liver cancer.
"‘Winter' is a far more abstract piece," Hersch said. "There's a fantastical element to a lot of Sorescu's texts. If you look away for a moment, you may not realize that the libretto is about illness and the effects of that illness."
By contrast, Hersch said the immediacy of the texts from O'Reilly, and from Elson's poems, in "I hope we get a chance to visit soon," confront mortality head on.
"You can't remove yourself from the circumstances that these two women are going through," Hersch said. "You can't escape the narrative, colored by my own experience of surgeries and radiation treatments 10 years ago, of two extraordinary women cut down in their prime."
For Patricia Kopatchinskaja, music director of the Ojai festival this year, Hersch's uncompromising music offers only "unconditional surrender."
"That's what makes it compelling, terrifying and necessary," Kopatchinskaja said by email. "Working with him is like fighting for the same bloody and only one truth. Hearing how he plays his music on piano, you understand immediately what he wants — a complete and absolute devotion, on the edge between life and death."
For Hersch, "I hope we get a chance to visit soon" allows him to use his art to connect to others who have found themselves in inconceivable circumstances.
"When they've lost someone they care deeply about, most people understand the omnipresence of this emptiness," Hersch said. "You feel a lack, and there's no emotional or psychological position you can take that mitigates that sensation."
Hersch’s wife, Karen Klaiber Hersch, a classics professor at Temple University, completed treatment in February as Hersch was finishing the score. Wife and husband are now both cancer-free.
"I simply believed Mary would beat it," Hersch said. "I go with my feelings, and the fact is I miss this person a great deal."