Singing, and signing, Beethoven's 'Fidelio' in Los Angeles

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Singing, and signing, Beethoven's 'Fidelio' in Los Angeles
Members of the White Hands Choir of Venezuela, which includes deaf and hard of hearing performers, during a rehearsal for a new production of Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio,” in Los Angeles, April 8, 2022. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Deaf West Theater are working on an innovative production conceived for both hearing and deaf operagoers. Michael Tyrone Delaney/The New York Times.

by Adam Nagourney

LOS ANGELES, CA.- DJ Kurs has been the artistic director of the Deaf West Theater, a theater company created here by deaf actors, for the past 10 years. But he had never seen the Los Angeles Philharmonic or been to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, its renowned home, even though he grew up in Southern California.

He will be there this week, though, leading seven actors from Deaf West in an innovative production of “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s opera about the rescue of a political prisoner, in a collaboration with a cast of singers and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The actors — along with a chorus from Venezuela whose members are deaf or hard of hearing and will also be signing — will be center stage on opening night Thursday, expressively enacting the lone opera of a composer who had progressive hearing loss while writing masterpiece after masterpiece. In this “Fidelio,” the singers will stay in the background.

“Opera itself as an art form, it has not been accessible to our world,” Kurs, 44, said the other day through a sign language interpreter. Deaf West, he said, had been approached in the past about collaborating on operas but had always declined.

But after nearly two years of not performing because of the pandemic — and after watching an energetic tape of Leonard Bernstein conducting “Fidelio” — Kurs decided to accept this offer to work with the Philharmonic and its music director, Gustavo Dudamel.

The extraordinary nature of the endeavor was clear as singers and actors gathered last week for rehearsals at a United Methodist church in Toluca Lake, in the San Fernando Valley, some 10 miles from Disney Hall. Each day was a mix of languages, movement and simultaneous translations — between voiced German, Spanish and English and signed American Sign Language and Venezuelan Sign Language.

For the production, 135 singers, actors, choir members (singing and signing) and orchestra players, along with Dudamel, who will conduct the production, will fill a stage that usually just accommodates an orchestra.

“We are creating the dance of the double-cast,” said Alberto Arvelo, the director of the production, in which each character is portrayed by both a singer and an actor. “We have been conceiving ‘Fidelio’ for both audiences; we want to create an opera for a deaf audience as well. From the first bar of the opera.”

For the actors, who are accustomed to performing in musicals including “Spring Awakening,” which has been part of Deaf West’s repertory, adapting to a more operatic style has been something of an adjustment.

“It’s a challenging and terrifying experience,” said Russell Harvard, the actor playing Rocco, the jailer, after rehearsing a scene where he took Leonore to the dungeon to see her husband (husbands: a singer and an actor) sleeping on the floor. “I have never done anything like this before.”

The actors have to translate German (the language of Beethoven’s opera and one that few of them know, so lip-reading is not an option for most) into American Sign Language. And they have to get used to the florid, multiple repetitions of a single word or line in the score, all of which are second nature for opera singers used to coloratura runs, and find ways to convey, with signs, the big moments when a singer sends a single note soaring through the hall.

“Oh, gosh — it is stressing me out,” said Amelia Hensley, the actor portraying Leonore, who disguises herself as a man named Fidelio to get a job in the jail where her husband, a political prisoner, is being held, in the hopes of saving him.

“I have to hold my sign for an incredibly long time because the note is held that long,” she said. “It’s difficult for me to understand because I don’t hear. And I want to make sure that the deaf audience will understand me and understand why I’m holding this out, because it’s not natural to the language to hold a sign that long.”

This production of “Fidelio” is opening less than a month after “CODA” won the Academy Award for best picture, and Troy Kotsur, who used to be member of Deaf West, won the Oscar for best supporting actor, the first deaf man to be so honored by the academy. Deaf West is developing a musical version of “CODA.” (Dudamel and his wife, Maria Valverde, said in an interview they had seen the movie three times.)

This production is steeped in classical music history, since Beethoven experienced hearing loss in the last decades of his life. (“Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others,” the composer and musician wrote in 1802 in an anguished letter addressed to his brothers that came to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.)

That history intrigued Dudamel as he was arranging a 250th anniversary celebration of Beethoven’s birth just before the pandemic. “It was how to make the opera be part of these two worlds — the two worlds of Beethoven,” he said.

And it is what drew Deaf West to this project; its members considered what Beethoven faced writing and conducting while dealing with a steady decline in his hearing.

“Maybe he did it through feeling the vibrations of the music?” Kurs said. “I don’t know Beethoven’s exact process, but there’s a similarity to how I experience music. I’ve never heard music in my entire life, but I think that I understand it.”

There is much debate among biographers and musicologists about Beethoven’s level of hearing at various points in his career. He wrote and revised “Fidelio” over the course of nearly a decade, from its first performance in 1805 to the substantially revised version of 1814. By 1813, he had several ear trumpets made. By 1818, he began carrying pads of paper for people to write down what they were saying to him. While he was able to continue composing as his hearing deteriorated, it became increasingly difficult for him to perform and conduct.

“It never really affected his ability to compose or orchestrate because he was wildly creative throughout his life,” said Theodore Albrecht, a retired professor of musicology at Kent State University, who has written extensively about Beethoven.

Jan Swafford, a Beethoven biographer, said the composer began reporting hearing loss as early as 1798. “He would not have lost pitch as much as color,” he said of its onset.

In the original plan, before the pandemic, this production was to be presented in Europe, with Dudamel conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra along with the White Hands Choir, a group of deaf and hard of hearing performers associated with El Sistema, the music education program in Venezuela where Dudamel trained. After the tour through Europe was canceled, Dudamel revived the idea here in Los Angeles, this time working with his own orchestra and Deaf West, the renowned Los Angeles-based theater.

Dudamel is familiar with the complexities of leading an orchestra, singers and a choir; he is also the music director for the Paris Opera. But this week, he will also be leading the deaf and hard-of-hearing actors from Deaf West and choir members from Venezuela.

Dudamel told Kurs he had to some extent been prepared for this because of his work at the podium, especially as someone who conducts orchestras all over the world, with players who speak many different languages. (Some orchestra players disdain overly verbal conductors in any language, preferring to work through the music.)

“In a way, a conductor needs to have sign language conducting the orchestra,” Dudamel told Kurs during a break in a rehearsal. “You cannot say anything. You can only show them.”

Valverde, an actress and filmmaker, is producing a documentary about the White Hands Choir, whose members wear distinctive white gloves, and was there filming the choir as her husband led it in rehearsal.

The aspirations of this performance will be signaled from the first notes of the overture.

The Venezuelan choir will use choreography and facial expressions to convey the power of the overture which opens the opera: The other day, it was wide smiles and hands raised to the air in a representation of fireflies. “Fidelio’s overture is especially optimistic,” said Arvelo, the director. “In such a dark story, the overture starts with this moment in major tones. We were like, 'How can we transmit this with images?'”

During the spoken stretches of the opera, the audience will hear nothing; the actors will communicate the dialogue in sign language, which will be translated on supertitles cast above the stage.

The production will last for three nights.

“I think it’s going to be a mixed audience,” said Chad Smith, head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “There will be a lot of the LA Phil audience who are coming to hear Gustavo and the LA Phil perform one of the great works from the canon.”

Smith added that the hope was to also have people who are deaf or hard of hearing, who are in the space for “perhaps the first time.”

The experience has proved to be as powerful for the opera singers as for the actors. Ryan Speedo Green, the bass-baritone who appeared as Uncle Paul in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera last year and is the singing counterpart to Russell Harvard’s Rocco, said this was the most inclusive opera he had ever witnessed.

“People want to see themselves onstage,” he said. “For once in my life, I’m going to be someone’s voice, and they’re going to be my action. He is my body and my action and my intent and my physical interpretation. And I am his voice to the audience, to the hearing audience. We are one entity — Rocco. He is attached to me as much as I am attached to him.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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