LOS ANGELES – DJ Kurs has been the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, a theater company created here by deaf actors for the past 10 years. But he had never seen the Los Angeles Philharmonic or visited the Walt Disney Concert Hall, its famous home, even though he grew up in Southern California.
He will be there this week, however, leading seven of Def West’s actors in an innovative production of “Fidelio,” about the rescue of a political prisoner in Beethoven’s opera, a collaboration of singers and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. from. The actors – accompanied by a chorus from Venezuela whose members are deaf or hard of hearing and will also sign – will be on the main stage on Thursday night, implying a composer’s solitary opera, which is known as masterpiece after masterpiece. There was progressive hearing loss while writing. In this “Fidelio” the singers will be in the background.
“Opera itself as an art form, it’s not accessible to our world,” Kurs, 44, said the other day through a sign-language interpreter. Def West, he said, had been approached about collaborating on the opera in the past, 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’s “Fidelio” – Kurs decided to accept the offer to work with the Philharmonic and its music director Gustavo Dudamel. decided.
The extraordinary nature of the effort was evident as singers and actors gathered last week for a rehearsal at a United Methodist church at Toluca Lake in the San Fernando Valley, about 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 (vocals and signings), and orchestra players, along with Dudamel, who will conduct the production, will fill a stage that usually accommodates just one orchestra.
“We’re creating a double-cast dance,” said production director Alberto Arevello, in which each character is portrayed by both a singer and an actor. “We are envisioning ‘Fidelio’ for both audiences – we want to make an opera for deaf audiences as well. From the very first time of the opera.”
For actors who are used to performing in musicals including “Spring Awakening,” which has been part of Def West’s repertory, adopting a more operatic style has been something of an adjustment.
Russell Harvard, the actor who played Rocco, the jailer, said after rehearsing a scene, “It’s a challenging and terrifying experience, where he finds Leonor watching her husband (husband: a singer and an actor) sleep on the floor. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
The actors have to translate American Sign Language into German (the language of Beethoven’s operas, and few of them know it, so lip-reading is not an option). And they have to get used to the florid, many repetitions of a word or line in the score, which are second nature to all opera singers, used to the coloratura runs, and with allusions, ways of expressing big moments. find when a singer sends a single note through the hall.
“Oh my god – this is stressing me out,” said Amelia Hensley, the actress who plays Leonor, who disguises herself as a man named Fidelio to get a job in prison, where her husband, a political The prisoner, is being kept in this hope. to save him
“I have to hold my sign for an incredibly long time because the note is held for a long time,” she said. “It’s hard for me to understand because I don’t hear. And I want to make sure that the deaf audience will understand and understand why I’m withholding, because it’s not natural for language to hold a sign for long .
This production of “Fidelio” begins less than a month after “Koda” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Troy Kotsur, who used to be a member of Def West, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Jeeta, who was the first deaf person. Be so honored by the Academy. Def West is developing a musical version of “CODA”. (Dudamel and his wife, Maria Valverde, said in an interview that they had seen the film three times.)
The production is steeped in the history of classical music, as Beethoven experienced hearing loss in the last decades of his life. (“Ah, how could I possibly accept a debauchery a quote who must be more perfect in me than in others,” the composer and composer wrote in a sore letter addressed to his brothers in 1802 which became known as the Heligenstadt Testament.)
That history baffled Dudamel as he was arranging celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth just before the pandemic. “It was how to make opera a part of these two worlds – Beethoven’s two worlds,” he said.
And this is what attracted the Deaf West to this project; Its members consider that Beethoven suffered from writing and conducting while dealing with a steady decline in his hearing.
“Maybe he did this by feeling the vibrations of the music?” Kurs said. “I don’t know Beethoven’s exact process, but there are similarities in how I experience music. I’ve never listened to music in my entire life, but I think I understand it.”
There is much debate about this among biographers and musicians. Beethoven’s listening level 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 a significantly revised version in 1814. By 1813, he had made several ear trumpets. 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.
Theodore J., a retired professor of musicology at Kent State University, who wrote extensively about Beethoven. “It never affected his ability to compose or orchestrate because he was wildly creative throughout his life,” Albrecht said.
Beethoven’s biographer Jan Swafford noted that the composer began reporting hearing loss as early as 1798. “They wouldn’t have lost as much color,” he said of its debut.
In the original plan, before the pandemic, the production was to be presented in Europe, with Dudamel conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with the White Hands Choir, a group of deaf and hard of hearing artists associated with the music education program El Sistema. was a group. In Venezuela where Dudamel trained. After the Europe tour was cancelled, Dudamel revived the idea in Los Angeles, this time working with his own orchestra and the famous Los Angeles-based theater Def West.
Dudamel is familiar with the intricacies of orchestra, singers, and choir leadership; He is also the music director of the Paris Opera. But this week, he will also lead Deaf West’s deaf and hard of hearing actors and Venezuelan choir.
Dudamel told Kurs that he was drawn to it in part because of his work on the podium, especially as someone who conducts orchestras around the world, with players speaking many different languages. Huh. (Some orchestra players despise excessive verbal operators in any language, preferring to work through the music.)
“In a way, a conductor needs sign language to conduct the orchestra,” Dudamel said to Kurs during a break at a rehearsal. “You can’t 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 filming the choir there as her husband led it in rehearsal.
The aspirations of this performance will be indicated by the first notes of the overture.
The Venezuelan choir would have used choreography and facial expressions to convey the power of the overture that opened the opera: on the second day, it was wide smiles and hands raised in the air in representations of fireflies. “Fidelio’s proposal is particularly optimistic,” said Arvello, director. “In a dark story like this, the overture begins with this moment in the dominant tone. We were like: How can we transmit this with images?”
During spoken parts of the opera, the audience would hear nothing: the actors would communicate the dialogue in sign language, which would be translated on supertitles inserted above the stage.
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 L.A. Phil audiences who are coming to hear Gustavo and perform one of the great works from the L.A. Phil canon.”
Smith said there was hope that there would be people who are deaf or hard of hearing who have been in space “probably for the first time”.
The experience has proven to be as powerful for opera singers as it is for actors. Ryan Speedo Green, bass-baritone who appeared as Uncle Paul in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera last year, and Russell Harvard’s Rocco’s vocal counterpart, said it was the most inclusive of all time. It was opera. ,
“People want to see themselves on stage,” he said. “For once in my life, I’m going to be someone’s voice and they’re going to be my action. That’s my body and my action and my intention and my physical interpretation. And for the audience, for the listening audience. For I am his voice. We are one unit – Rocco. He is as attached to me as I am to him.”