New interpretations: Opera and American Sign Language come together in performance at VHO

Amber Zion (top), seen here in Deaf West Theatre’s production of My Sister in This House, is in town to push the boundaries of opera during a VHO workshop. She has performed music since she was a child, but this will be her first opera performance. Opera singers “have so much more emotions in their voice,” she says, and “[as deaf actors], I think we will be able to bring that out through our beautiful ASL.” courtesy of VHO. Amber Zion (top), seen here in Deaf West Theatre’s production of My Sister in This House, is in town to push the boundaries of opera during a VHO workshop. She has performed music since she was a child, but this will be her first opera performance. Opera singers “have so much more emotions in their voice,” she says, and “[as deaf actors], I think we will be able to bring that out through our beautiful ASL.” courtesy of VHO.

Amber Zion started analyzing acting techniques when she was 5 years old. The only deaf child in her family, she grew up watching movies without captions, and she made up her own stories based on what she saw in the actors’ expressions and gestures.

When she watched MTV, she’d ask her mother to act out scenes from different videos—such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—then she’d jump in and follow along.

Those videos “were very artistic, and I wanted to be able to give that to the deaf community,” says Zion, who got involved in theater in college and has since made her own music videos of popular songs like “Let It Go” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” performed in American Sign Language. She’s also performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl. “I wanted to create our own meaning behind the music,” she says.

This week, Zion comes to Charlottesville to tackle a new type of musical expression: opera.

Over the course of a three-day workshop, three deaf actors and three hearing opera singers, along with a director, a conductor, an ASL master, and a pianist, will explore a selection of scenes from Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, written in the 20th century and set in a convent on the eve of the French Revolution.

The public will have the opportunity to experience the resulting performance (performed simultaneously in English and ASL) on February 27 at UVA’s Old Cabell Hall, as part of the UVA Disability Studies Symposium.

Victory Hall Opera, an innovative local company, proposed the initial concept. Artistic director, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, a hearing soprano who is also singing in this experiment, got the idea from reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, a book about parenting children who are different from their parents.

One section of the book looks at the experience of a deaf child growing up with hearing parents, and Solomon explains the origins of sign language: French priest Charles-Michel de l’Épée founded the first known public school for the deaf in Paris in 1755.

Gordon-Stewart’s mind “immediately went to” Dialogues of the Carmelites, an opera singer’s opera, set about 35 years later. “Wouldn’t it be great,” she thought, “if we could talk about Dialogues of the Carmelites through a deaf lens?”

That provoked further questions, such as “What is opera without sound? Is there a unique performing style to opera that can transcend the sound itself? How can we heighten the visual elements of opera to express its essence?”

Director Alek Lev is curious to discover (among other things) what operatic sign language looks like. Sign language looks and feels a certain way while signing Shakespeare, and that’s different from how the language looks and feels when signing, say, Neil Simon dialogue, he says.

Plus, he says, there’s an “essential metaphor” in the opera—one of fighting against the system—that might resonate with the deaf community, whose members have been “historically marginalized and misunderstood…they are more and more fighting for their linguistic and cultural rights, their civil rights,” says Lev. “It’s exciting that [Dialogues of the Carmelites] gives us this pretty easily.”

There’s a unique physicality to singing opera. “The body resonates as an instrument to produce these enormous amounts of sound; there’s an athleticism to it,” says Gordon-Stewart.

And there’s a certain, also unique, physicality to signing, implies Sandra Mae Frank, who will sign the role of Blanche.

“I don’t need to hear [music] to understand it,” Frank says. “I don’t need to hear what everyone else hears, because I see it. I feel it. I understand it on a deeper level. When I sing in ASL, it’s like I can almost see the wavelength of the song. My body glows inside and my heart pours out openly. I’m not interpreting the music, I am performing it with emotions, inside and out. I use my entire body, including my facial expressions and using the right translation to show the beat of the music. In a way, singing in ASL adds more abstract emotional quality. It’s not always about hearing the music, but seeing and feeling the music.”

ASL “is already a visual language that sometimes stands alone without adding any actual choreography,” adds Frank, and sometimes it can work with choreography to convey new layers of emotion and meaning. To “hearing audience members, that’s dancing, but to the deaf/hard-of-hearing audience members, that’s ASL. It’s beautiful how both naturally come together,” she says.

With this in mind, Frank, whose credits include Deaf West Theatre’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening, is curious to find out if she’ll sign differently in opera than she does in musical theater.

This is Zion’s first opera performance as well. Opera singers “have so much more emotions in their voice,” she says, and “[as deaf actors], I think we will be able to bring that out through our beautiful ASL.”

In many musical productions featuring deaf actors and hearing actors, two actors essentially split a role, where one signs and one speaks. And there will be some of that in these Dialogues of the Carmelites scenes, but Gordon-Stewart says they won’t stick strictly to the doubling. Such an approach will allow the cast and crew to plumb some of the work’s spiritual themes and explore the bonds between characters and between actors.

Both the hearing actors and the deaf actors expect to learn plenty from one another throughout the workshop. That’s what acting’s all about anyhow, says Zion. Whether performing an opera about nuns or The King of Pop’s dance moves, “you will never stop learning, and that’s what makes you a great actor.”

Frank agrees. “That’s the beauty of theater: You never stop learning something new together.”

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