UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 13 Winter 20 Library
Gina Proulx Photography © Victory Hall Opera

Breaking The Sound Barrier: Deaf Opera Workshop

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Praised for "breaking new ground and pushing the envelope", and called "the future of the field" by The Washington Post, Victory Hall Opera is now in its 6th Season of bringing cutting-edge, thrilling chamber opera to Charlottesville, Virginia.

One of the most exciting things about being an artist is that you never know where you will find your next inspiration, or what roads it might take you down. For Victory Hall Opera Co-Founder and Director of Music Brenda Patterson, that inspiration came through reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. The book, she says, focuses on parenting when you are different from your children. One chapter was about a deaf child who grew up with hearing parents. In setting up the story, Solomon explained that the origins of American Sign Language, which had roots in Paris, where the first public school for the Deaf was founded in 1755.

The story got the wheels turning for Patterson and VHO Co-Founder and Artistic Director Miriam Gordon Stewart. What would an opera look like through a Deaf lens? And what if that opera was Dialogues of the Carmelites, a famously robust piece even by opera standards? 

“The work we do at VHO is often focused on exploring new modes of expression on stage,” Patterson said, “and different kinds of collaborations that allow us to pull in different kinds of artists, performers, and audiences.”

This particular inspiration took several years to realize; years spent studying and building contacts in the Deaf theatre world, getting an ASL translation for the piece created, and building a team that could make it a reality. The team would be full of all-stars, as it turned out, including Sandra Mae Frank, who played Blanche in the production. Frank earned raves on Broadway for her performance as Wendla in Deaf West Theatre’s Tony-nominated revival of Spring Awakening. Another performer, Amber Zion, signed for Renee Fleming’s performance of The National Anthem at Super Bowl XLIII in 2014 and has made a name for herself in the Deaf world and far beyond with barrier-breaking music videos for hit songs including Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, among others.

Amber Zion
(Photo: Gina Proulx Photography © Victory Hall Opera)

“Both Sandy and Amber are Deaf, and always have been,” Patterson said, “but they have both grown up being fascinated by the idea of music, and both of them have a special sensitivity and communicative energy. They are actually singing in ASL, which is very different from talking or being in a play in ASL.” The leap from music to opera made the connection that much more intense, Patterson said. “Opera is its own art form. Obviously the way the music and the language unfolds through time is different,  in the level of energetic and physical commitment it takes. One of the most beautiful and profound things about this workshop was to see that someone who is Deaf can be a great musician and a great singer.”

It was important throughout the process, especially given the outsize talents of these artists, that the ASL performers were treated as much more than “interpreters” of the singers’ words and actions. “We wanted to make sure that, both physically and dramatically,  there were real relationships between the singers and these performers. It was a beautiful thing to see the connections on stage, and how the singers, the actors, and the conductor developed these ways of communicating and cueing each other."

Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Jennifer Zetlan, and Sandra Mae Frank
(Photo: Gina Proulx Photography © Victory Hall Opera)

The single workshop performance, Patterson hopes, is a jumping off point to future collaborations. “We are excited about exploring the possibility of a full production,” she said. “It would require a lot more resources than our little chamber opera company would normally have on hand, but we are looking for partners and sponsors to help us figure out how to do that.”

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