What is a hero? That is the simple yet vast question at the heart of Hannah Lash’s “Beowulf,” which Guerilla Opera will premiere on Friday. Less an updating than a reimagining of the Old English legend, the opera discards the poem’s noble, self-assured protagonist and replaces him with a humbler and more authentic figure. He’s a doctor, a former army medic haunted by dual demons: PTSD from a tragic wartime encounter, in which a young girl died in his care, and his mother, for whom he must care as she slides inexorably into dementia. Heroism, Lash implies, lies not in valiant deeds, but in holding it together under the arduous demands that life places on us.
To understand how and why Lash conceived “Beowulf” this way, and why it may be her most personal work to date, it helps to know something about her upbringing. Lash, 34, was born and raised in the small town of Alfred, N.Y., the daughter of librarians. Since the age of 3 or 4 she wanted to compose. In a recent phone interview, she remembered listening to Bach cantatas with her father after coming home from work and asking him, “How did this music come to be? You know, who made it?”
Her parents were both “outside-the-box thinkers,” as she called them, who homeschooled Lash and were inclined to support a nontraditional educational path. “Their big stipulation,” Lash said, was that “I could practice and compose all I wanted, as long as I would be well-read. So I had a lot of time to kind of explore the repertoire, explore what it was that I wanted to do, and hone my skills.”
After starting on violin and piano, Lash settled on the harp as her principal instrument, an atypical choice for a composer, and one whose repertoire and capabilities have been ignored unjustly. Throughout her training she felt the tension of competing loyalties to performing and composing. She holds no fewer than five academic degrees, including a PhD in composition from Harvard and a performance diploma in harp from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and serves on the faculty of Yale University.
Another consequence of Lash’s upbringing was that “a lot of my friends were my parents’ age or older — people who are not necessarily your contemporaries and peers,” she explained. For that reason, she ended up “seeing a lot of elderly friends pass away over the years,” providing insight from a young age into human fragility. “And not only fragility, but also . . . what it means to you as an adult person who has lived for a long time and acquired a lot of wisdom, then what is it to have to let go and allow someone else to take care of you?”
The person tasked with stepping into that role is, Lash realized, the real hero. “If the hero is in fact suffering, as my hero is in this piece, then what it comes down to is this intensity of love that human beings have for each other, and the idea that it is hard to let go,” she said. “And that is in some ways the origin of the suffering: the idea that we love one another. We think of love in a very beautiful way — but equally powerful is, we suffer because we love.”
Lash began to envision a “Beowulf” in which the hero bore the scars and burdens of everyday life, whose bravery resided in quiet endurance. So complete was her conception that, without having written a note, she got in touch with Guerilla Opera artistic director Mike Williams, whom she’d met at Tanglewood, and asked whether the company would be interested in her project.
She wrote the libretto herself — “my perspective on this subject matter was so personal that I kind of needed to walk on that path alone” — and composed the 80-minute score in six months of focused work during a residency last summer at the Aaron Copland House in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y.
“I just needed to breathe the air of the piece in a very concentrated way,” she said of the process, a kind of extreme experience. “It really had to be that type of isolated, lonely way of writing for that period of time.” Then at the end of each day, she would leave her workroom to rejoin her family. “If my daughter and husband were out,” she said, “I remember just sort of sort of gratefully just holding my dog for a few hours. You know, that was just such a healing thing.”
Guerilla Opera: ‘Beowulf’
At Zack Box Theater, Boston Conservatory, May 20, 21, 27 and 28 at 8 p.m.; May 22 at 2 p.m. Tickets: $10-$15. guerillaopera.com