Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Deaf Opera Workshop

Three female opera singers

What is opera without the voice? How does the story change when the lead characters are deaf?

The Breaking the Sound Barrier workshop explored these questions, and many more, and made an impressive start at integrating such seemingly disparate experiences. The creative team behind this endeavor hopes that the work done and the lessons learned will transfer into a full production opera in the next year.

The intensive weeklong workshop culminated in a performance at Old Cabell Hall which kicked off the Disabilities Studies Symposium. It was a truly inspirational event!

Three professional opera singers and three deaf actors traveled to Charlottesville to hold this workshop on Grounds, allowing UVA students to interact with, learn from and participate through the process. While the event took place at the end of February, preparations began months in advance. The creative team selected six scenes from Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (an opera which focuses on the religious persecution of a group of nuns during the French Revolution) and began translating them into a stage version of American Sign Language. Via video conferencing and finally in-person, the team of actors, singers, the conductor and the director struggled with a multitude of challenges over several months. In an article from the Washington Post, director Alek Lev declined to share a vision for the event until the group came together in-person to rehearse — it was that groundbreaking.

At the performance on February 27, the audience was a mix of deaf and hearing, and the majority had little or no experience with opera. After an opening scene, director Alek Lev welcomed the audience and walked through some of the challenges the team had faced in rehearsals that week. The scene was then presented again, reimagined. Throughout the performance, Lev interjected with explanations, providing background on intervening scenes not presented and sharing anecdotes about the scene to come. In one scene, an ensemble of UVA student singers joined the actors on the stage for Ave Maria.

At the end of the performance actors, singers, directors, and interpreters gathered on stage for a Q&A session with the audience. Each shared personal stories of powerful moments during the workshop and the months of preparations leading up to it. Everyone agreed it was one of the most important things they’ve done, and there was a deep interest in continuing to explore the integration of deaf opera from all parties.

“Breaking the Sound Barrier” is the brainchild of Brenda Patterson and Miriam Gordon-Stewart of Victory Hall Opera in Charlottesville. Patterson is a faculty member at the University of Virginia Music Department. Watch for more information on their progress toward a full production of “Dialogues of the Carmelites!” For those who missed the live performance, a documentary of the workshop is also in progress.