Heartbeat Opera at Baruch Performing Arts Center, May 3-13, 2018
Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
Original libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner & Georg Friedrich Sonnleithner
Adapted and Directed by Ethan Heard
Arranged and Music Directed by Daniel Schlosberg
New English Dialogue Co-Written by Marcus Scott & Ethan Heard
Movement Direction by Emma Crane Jaster, Fight Direction by Rick Sordelet, Set by Reid Thompson, Costumes by Valérie Thérèse Bart, Lighting by Oliver Wason, Sound by Kate Marvin, Projections by Nicholas Hussong, Paul Lieber, and Joey Moro, Hair and Make Up by Jon Carter, Stage Managed by Jakob W. Plummer, Supertitles by Nick Betson, Carceral Expert Michelle Jones
Roc // Derrell Acon
Marcy // Malorie Casimir
Stan // Nelson Ebo
Leah/Lee // Kelly Griffin
Pizarro // Daniel Klein
Also featuring the voices of more than 100 incarcerated singers and 70 volunteers from six prison choirs across the Midwest: Oakdale Community Choir, KUJI Men’s Chorus, UBUNTU Men’s Chorus, HOPE Thru Harmony Women’s Choir, East Hill Singers, and Voices of Hope
Photos by Russ Rowland
I nearly missed Heartbeat Opera’s “Fidelio” — reorchestrated, reduced and reimagined for the era of Black Lives Matter — and I’m so glad I didn’t. The production, staged smartly in a subterranean theater at the Baruch Performing Arts Center that already had the look of a concrete correctional facility, deftly navigated the tricky art of adaptation with new English-language dialogue (alongside Beethoven’s arias in the original German) that felt urgent and powerful without pontificating. Even the moment that most risked heavy-handedness, the Prisoners’ Chorus performed by real American prison choirs on video, turned out to be one of the most poignant. Have a listen, though be warned: The scene left me searching for tissues.
-Joshua Barone, The New York Times
Behind concrete walls and metal fencing, they met enthusiastic artists. One Ubuntu chorister proudly displayed his tattoo of Johann Sebastian Bach. At Oakdale Prison, the warden even offered acting tips. Audio and video footage of the groups (HOPE Thru Harmony Women’s Choir and Voices of Hope also participated) will be stitched together to create Beethoven’s sublime music. “These choirs are about accessing humanity through community,” Mr. Schlosberg said. “And these choir directors have found a way to nourish the idea that these are people.” Mr. Heard nodded. “And that,” he said, “is what ‘Fidelio’ is about.”
A categorically imaginative company, [Heartbeat] has made its name with vital reshapings of repertory operas. I saw “Fidelio,” and was blindsided by its impact. Leading the cast were Nelson Ebo, grittily affecting as Stan, and Kelly Griffin, giving a confident, full-voiced performance as Leah. But the heartbreaking centerpiece of the production was the chorus “O welche Lust,” in which the prisoners are allowed to leave their cells. Earlier this year, Heard and Schlosberg went to correctional facilities in the Midwest and filmed Beethoven’s chorus being sung by prisoners. Several letters from prisoners were on display. One member of Ubuntu wrote, “The creativity I possess is still within me, prison has not taken away my hope.” In the theatre, a video of the prisoners’ work substituted for a live performance. Beethoven’s music was itself a spell of freedom for them—a virtual walk in open air. Heard and Schlosberg refused to coat this wrenching spectacle in feel-good sentiment. Mindful of American reality, they discarded the opera’s happy ending and imposed a bleak coda, with a scrambled, dissonant collage of “Fidelio” music and other Beethoven snippets to match.
-Alex Ross, The New Yorker
Imaginatively deconstructed and reconceived. Ingenious seven-player arrangements...[with] artful transitions. Thoughtfully adapted and directed by Ethan Heard. Precise. The most powerful scene was the prisoners’ chorus, which was performed by 100 incarcerated men and women and 70 volunteers from six prison choirs. They were seen on pre-recorded video as well as heard, and their amateur but committed music-making brought real life into the theater. Kelly Griffin was an imposingly passionate Leah, carrying off “Abscheulicher!” with authority; Malorie Casimir was brightly innocent as Marcy.
Fearless work that was somehow true to the original yet very current. The powerful use of a chorus of prisoners--represented in the production by projected work of actual prison choruses from around the Midwest--was a master stroke. I thought Ethan Heard's production was more successful than the opera's most recent revival at the Met. Kelly Griffin made an incisive Leah, powerful yet warm, and Malorie Casimir was a winning Marcy, using her light voice smartly, while bass-baritone Derrell Acon made a dignified, smart Roc.
Powerful. Adapted and directed by Ethan Heard, this version peels back the operatic trappings to let the characters emerge. Kelly Griffin jerked tears and kicked butt as Leah, and Derrell Acon gave the compromised flunky Roc some very human ambivalence about doing terrible things to defenseless people. Heartbeat’s Fidelio follows the intertwined grand traditions of miniaturized opera, biting updates, and shoestring spectacle, yet still produced something serious and new.
Both productions [Heartbeat's Fidelio and Don Giovanni] feature stellar young casts in exciting, stripped-down productions that burn brightly both musically and theatrically. In a brilliant theatrical stroke, director Ethan Heard and co-musical director Daniel Schlosberg travelled to prisons in Iowa, Ohio, Kansas, and Minnesota... [The Prisoners' Chorus] was a deeply stirring moment that palpably resonated with the audience.
Stunning, moving, and critically important. The adaptation was truly brilliant, in all the different subtle and not-so-subtle ways that it modernized Fidelio, especially along gender and sexuality, racial, and political and ethical dimensions."
-BBC (at 23:12)
Carved in stone above the entrance to the London Correctional Institution in Ohio are the words, “He who enters here leaves not hope behind.” Inside, on Tuesday mornings, the Ubuntu Men’s Chorus rehearses. One of the singers has a portrait of Bach tattooed on his forearm. At the invitation of the choir’s conductor Cathy Roma, Dan and I visited rehearsal on March 21.
The Ubuntu Men’s Chorus is one of six prison choirs that are participating in this production. Overall, more than 100 “inside” (incarcerated) singers and 80 “outside” singers (volunteers who visit the prisons) are raising their voices with us.
FIDELIO is about hope in the face of despair: in our adaptation, Leah’s husband Stan, a Black Lives Matter activist, has been wrongfully incarcerated by a corrupt warden, but Leah still fiercely hopes she can free him. It is about courage in the face of danger: Leah disguises herself as a correctional officer to infiltrate the facility where she believes Stan is being kept. And love in the face of hate: Leah’s love transcends the warden’s racism.
We live in a time of great injustice. Violence against black bodies is an ongoing epidemic plaguing our society, and our prison system incarcerates many, many more people than it should. Did you know that the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners? The state of California alone has more prisoners than do France, the UK, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined. Shockingly, one in every three black male babies born in the U.S. in this century is expected to be incarcerated.
In the midst of great struggle, Beethoven’s music has the power to connect and uplift our spirits. FIDELIO expresses the yearning for freedom and redemption in us all. Experiencing this music and this story nourishes us in these dark times, reminding us of the beauty we, as human beings, are capable of.
In the Ubuntu Chorus rehearsal, Dan accompanied on keyboard, and I filmed. New t-shirts with the chorus logo had arrived, and the singers excitedly put them on over their uniforms. After I explained in more detail how the footage I was shooting would be used in the production, however, one singer nicknamed Frederick Douglass raised his hand, saying, “We should take off our t-shirts. We’ve got to represent all men in blue.”
This production is dedicated to the men and women behind bars for whom we are responsible, and for the activists who hope, leading us in the fight for justice.
Sources: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform by John F. Pfaff, Let’s Get Free by Paul Butler