A New Production of FIDELIO Could Change Opera Forever
The LA Philharmonic is partnering with Deaf West Theatre to present a semi-staged production of Beethoven’s Fidelio April 14–16 at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Led by Gustavo Dudamel, the production is Deaf West’s first opera and was created specifically for both Deaf and hearing audiences.
Below, Theatrely chats with Deaf West Artistic Director DJ Kurs, Fidelio co-director Alberto Arvelo, LA Philharmonic Association Chief Content and Engagement Officer Renae Williams Niles, and castmates Russell Harvard and Ryan Speedo Green, who share the role of Rocco.
Why is Fidelio the perfect project for this first-time partnership?
Alberto Arvelo: Fidelio is emotionally connected with the deaf audience from the very day of its premiere, when Beethoven himself, sitting in the audience, could not hear his opera.
DJ Kurs: The music works hand in hand with themes of longing and freedom which resonate with members of our community. In this staging, ASL becomes the central medium of storytelling. It is the perfect vehicle, with all of its nuances, movement and poetry, to express the desires of the characters.
Renae Williams Niles: This has truly been a most powerful experience for us all. The LA Phil strives to be a leading voice for cultural innovations, which makes this new Fidelio production even more relevant to our mission, which includes providing increased access to inspiring performing arts experiences. By reducing barriers to participation, we hope to further contribute toward positive changes in the performing arts that will lead to greater and sustainable cultural equity.
How do you see the partnership between LA Philharmonic and Deaf West Theatre evolving in the next few years?
DK: May I be as bold to say that all operas should be signed? The addition of the language increases the expressivity of the medium and enhances the storytelling potential.
RWN: Not only has our work together taught us more about artistic practice and collaboration but it has informed policies and procedures for our organization, such as pens and paper being a part of the usher uniform, more directional signage throughout Disney Hall, the usage of lighting during intermission in combination with chimes, and thoughtful seating practices for our Deaf audience members.
Do audiences need to be familiar with opera to see the show?
AA: [Baked into] the DNA of this project is the idea of making a Fidelio for an audience not entirely familiar with opera. Perhaps the most inspiring thing about this project is the spirit of integration that an effort like this implies.
DK: Setting foot in Disney Hall will be like traveling to a foreign country with its own customs and traditions. However, the underpinnings of the story are universal and it is our hope that these audiences will be rewarded with a transporting experience.
How would you describe the combination of Beethoven's music and ASL?
AA: Combining Fidelio with sign language is emotionally organic. I have worked together with David to find a way to translate the emotions of each musical moment into a visual experience… It has been a fascinating journey of communication and integration in the deepest sense of the word.
DK: We are breaking new ground. There are duets, trios, and quartets that achieve vocal harmony—and if I may say so, these same songs achieve a different sort of harmony in ASL.
Russell Harvard: Fidelio is the only opera composed by Beethoven—and now the only one of its kind incorporating sign language… It’s a groundbreaking endeavor that merges audiences together for all to enjoy at the same time.
Ryan Speedo Green: It’s a story about political oppression, injustice, and cruelty, which are themes that are just as problematic today as they were when Beethoven originally wrote this piece.
What should audiences know about the character you're playing?
RH: As one of the central characters, Rocco, is the father to Marzelline. He has a caring personality and only wants the best for his daughter, including finding a husband. He is a jailer where Fidelio takes a job but who is secretly trying to rescue prisoner, Florestan. Ever obedient, Rocco can be swayed easily by cunning schemes of Don Pizarro, the tyrant governor of the prison.
RSG: He could be considered to be the protagonist of the plot, and certainly the character who goes through the most amount of development in the opera. He’s basically a participant in a corrupt system and turns a blind eye to the most violent parts of his job, and it’s not until Leonora steps in that he’s able to have the awareness to realize his decisions/actions have the power to change the system.
What is your onstage partnership like?
RH: I had an instant connection with my singing counterpart. He quickly picked up what it means for us to share and connect as the character of Rocco. Speedo had a childhood friend who was deaf and remembered the A-B-Cs in American Sign Language. It has been an easy connection and he has been game to even incorporate some signing with his own lines.
RSG: I really enjoy working with Russell. This entire rehearsal process has been unlike anything I’ve done before, and it’s a tremendously rewarding challenge. It’s amazing to watch him turn the music into physical gestures without ever hearing it. He communicates so clearly that, even without my very limited knowledge of sign language, I can still get the meaning behind what he’s saying. It reminds me a lot of how the meaning of opera can also be understood, even though it is in a foreign language.
What do theatremakers need to keep in mind when simultaneously working with hearing and deaf performers?
DK: Our job as producers is to make the boundaries between languages and cultures disappear. When there is full access, the performers are able to work in the way they want, as artists who want to create and inspire. For those new to our community, I would encourage theatremakers to begin by asking the Deaf artists what they need in terms of support.
AA: Having singers and actors on stage elevates the overall experience for both audiences. Information is not duplicated, [it] is diversified and multiplied. The group of Deaf West Theatre actors I’m working with is exceptionally versatile and powerful. They are great actors. I must say that the definition of tempo, and sticking to it, has been one of the fundamental elements of this process. It's that tempo that allows us to connect actors and singers effectively.
For more information and tickets, click here.