Heartbeat Opera, a small but mighty opera company based in New York and known for its relevant, abbreviated and sometimes uncomfortable reimaginings of classic works, set its new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in modern times to explore the topic of mass incarceration and the disproportionate rates at which black men and women are imprisoned in the United States.
The company deliberately sought to cast black singers in all the lead roles in the opera, and collaborated with six prison choirs to create a video that is incorporated into the Prisoners’ Chorus scene — a soaring ode to freedom that takes place at the end of act one. In the scene, the imprisoned are allowed a brief moment of fresh air before returning to their cells, and with the guide of Beethoven’s music, they tenderly exalt the beauty of the sky and the joy in breathing freely, and express their hopes to be free again.
The video, which features a medley of prison choirs singing the famed piece, was projected onto a floor-to-ceiling screen alongside the cast as they performed the scene last week at Baruch Performing Arts Center. It was among the most moving elements of Heartbeat’s “Fidelio.”
ALL ARTS spoke with the company’s artistic director, Ethan Heard, about the inspirations and challenges behind staging this work, which tells the story of a wrongly-accused husband whose wife tries desperately to free him.
ALL ARTS: Why “Fidelio”?
ETHAN HEARD: I was really interested in finding a classic opera that could live in 2018 with political urgency that could really grapple with our society today.
“Fidelio” was an opera I had come across in grad school and it has really stuck with me in my imagination, and I reread the plot synopsis and started listening to it, and was just immediately excited about setting it in America today and casting singers of color in the lead roles and reaching out to prison choirs.
Dan, my co-music director, had a friend from school who now is a conductor of Voices of Hope in Minnesota – she has a TED Talk; her name is Amanda Weber – and we got in touch with her and she put us in touch with more prison choir conductors and gradually we got permission from the wardens of these six correctional facilities to let these choirs participate with us.
It has been really a moving, eye-opening, heart-wrenching experience getting to talk to incarcerated singers, getting to visit four of the rehearsals, and I’ve been really humbled by the generosity that these choirs have offered. Not to mention the New York artists, who are just so fiercely talented and so dedicated to the message of the show.
AA: What was the idea behind including real prison choruses?
EH: Heartbeat has always been about essentializing opera and doing opera in intimate spaces with smaller bands. So with “Fidelio” I was kind of wondering: How are we going to do the Prisoners’ Chorus, which is such a central moment? I had heard podcasts about arts programs in prisons and was just curious — might there be a prison choir that in some way could participate? I wasn’t sure yet if it meant video and audio.
Over the course of a few months we figured out, OK, we’re going to do an arrangement that includes women’s voices, we’re going to split up the chorus so that each choir is featured and they don’t have to learn the whole thing. Just step by step it came together.
AA: What were your expectations going to the prisons and correctional facilities and how did they change when you got there?
EH: I didn’t really know what it was going to be like. I was a little nervous. We flew into Des Moines and we drove over to Oakdale Prison, and that prison was surprising in how warmly the warden welcomed us.
Warden Jim was there at the front desk to greet us. It felt like we were barely searched. He had arranged for three incarcerated men to give us a tour and we walked around, we saw the hospice, we saw the mental health ward, we saw the classrooms, we saw the cafeteria and the gym. It just felt very transparent. We got to the bunk beds and they even took us into solitary confinement briefly. So that was remarkable.
There was an alarm that went off while we were there, so I was reminded all of a sudden of the violence that can break out. Our guides explained that when that kind of alarm goes off, it means that we have to stand against the wall because the correctional officers are running to an emergency, and often that alarm might be followed by a medical alarm — a code blue – which means that maybe someone’s been hurt or there’s a medical emergency of some kind.
So that reminded me all of a sudden, OK, we’re in an intense place.
AA: What was it like working with the prison chorus singers?
EH: We were really moved by the incarcerated singers’ gratitude. I wasn’t sure if they’d kind of begrudgingly learned the song, you know, or how interested in opera they would be.
But, for instance, the KUJI Choir in Ohio had memorized the German. Off-book, fully invested in the lyrics. I was able to give acting coaching, which they hungrily absorbed.
They were like, thank you for coming here, thank you for including us; for getting our voices out there. They were proud to be a part of it. They were saying, I’m going to tell my brother to come, I’m going to tell my dad to come, I’m going to send my mom a Heartbeat postcard.
We exchanged letters with them after we got back to New York. We have some of the letters on display, and those also brought home for me how often these incarcerated folks can feel very invisible to society. The fact that this story got national attention and coverage is more important than I realized at the beginning.
AA: Tell me about casting people of color in the lead roles.
EH: This project has been humbling in so many ways. I dove into some research so I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, I was reading Bryan Stevenson and I watched Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” and my eyes were gradually more and more open to mass incarceration and to the horrifying statistics of people of color, especially black men in America, being incarcerated at such high rates.
We put the word out that we were doing “Fidelio.” We weren’t sure who would audition for us, but my colleagues and I put some extra effort into reaching out to singers of color and that network. Sure enough, people came in, and we have such an amazing cast.
AA: What do you hope to achieve with this opera production?
EH: I think ultimately Beethoven’s music and the story is about hope in the face of injustice and courage in the face of fear and despair. For me, in 2018 in America, there are a lot of things to be scared of. There are a lot of things to be sad about and despairing about, and I think Beethoven reminds us that we can fight; we can keep hoping and keep loving.
So there’s that story, and then there’s the meta-story of seeing black opera singers on stage embodying these characters, which I think in and of itself is political and important.
And I can tell you, these singers know that. They know that their presence on stage is important. And they’re proud of that and they don’t take it lightly. That was eye-opening for me; that it’s not a casual thing for [the cast members].
What was inspiring about this project was we did start early enough and we did send a lot of emails and we did make a lot of phone calls, but it was baby steps and nothing was crazy insurmountable. It’s just about having the plan and the mission and galvanizing support, because I think people want to support a project like this and they want to be a part of that, so it does start to have its own energy.
As an artist in New York trying to make an impact and trying to do worthwhile things like this project, it meant so much to me personally because I’m like, OK, now I have a bar for myself about what I want to do in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Top Image: Courtesy of Russ Rowland