Author: Megan Scott

Exploring Communication Through Opera

Lawrence opera students utilize sign language in new conception of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”

Lawrence University Conservatory of Music student rehearse ASL for the upcoming opera, "Mass."
Lawrence University Conservatory of Music students rehearse ASL for the upcoming opera, “Mass.”

Twenty-one members of the Lawrence University Opera Theatre Ensemble spent two weeks over their winter break learning American Sign Language (ASL). Why would opera singers need to know ASL?

In a twist on the original production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers, award-winning Director of Opera Studies and Associate Professor of Music Copeland Woodruff has incorporated a Deaf character into the production, resulting in an exploration of communities breakdowns when opposing sides work to understand each other and move forward together. Performers will utilize ASL, as well as Pidgin Signed English (PSE), throughout the performance.

“The use of ASL and PSE underscores the struggle to communicate, particularly between Deaf and hearing communications and within the Deaf community itself,” says Woodruff of his decision. “My inspiration was two-fold: the obvious metaphor of our current society, where people have a difficult time listening to one another, and the inclusion of community members who might not necessarily attend an opera.”

Woodruff has a track record of partnering with community groups to examine socially relevant issues through opera. Mass is no exception. He is working with local partners to explore options for community engagement and dialogue about the history of the Deaf community in the U.S. and the world, as well as Deaf language and culture. In tandem with the show, Lawrence students will take part in planned community engagement activities, including a performance of selections from of the opera at Appleton’s Edison Elementary, which serves both Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students.

Members of the production team hope that the opera will reach roughly 2,000 people in the Fox Valley region.

“It is rare—even at the national level—for a signed opera to be produced and performed,” said Woodruff. “The majority of our area’s theater-going public would not ordinarily experience this type of performance. Mass will open dialogues about faith and inclusion to our community.”

Robert Schleifer, professional Deaf actor, Kristine Orkin, local interpreter for the Deaf, and two professional vocal/style specialists are participating in the production. Schleifer, along with Lawrence student performers, will sign most of the opera’s lyrics in real-time during the performance. Deaf audience members will also be able to read supertitles.

As a part of the world-wide celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, Woodruff and the Lawrence University Opera Theatre Ensemble will collaborate with members of two local children’s choirs to reimagine Mass, which is structured like a Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass but mixes sacred and secular texts and music. The Celebrant leads the ceremony, and the Deaf character is the voice of the congregation challenging the Celebrant. They argue and search for answers to universal questions together—their diversity highlighted by an eclectic blend of blues, rock, gospel, folk, Broadway, jazz, hymnal, Middle Eastern dance, and orchestral music. Ultimately, they affirm the value of faith and hope for peace.

“Distinctive productions like Mass provide students with a rich educational opportunity to practice being a singer-actor, hone full-bodied communication skills, as well as develop appreciation and respect for the experience of others,” said Woodruff. “We hope that students will learn that the arts can be a powerful vehicle for personal and societal awareness and change.”

Erik Nordstrum ’19, who shares the main role of the Celebrant with Aria Minasian ’19, has learned a great deal about his personal beliefs throughout his work on the production.

“Through working on this piece, I realized that I have not been listening to other people, or to myself, as intently or as consistently as I would like to, and that so many human failures stem from a failure to communicate,” Nordstrum said.

“I’d say some of the most challenging things are also the most enjoyable,” adds Minasian.

“Learning about the Deaf community and applying it to the show has been awesome. I’ve also found challenges with figuring out how to be a female Celebrant in a Roman Catholic Church setting. This show has a lot to unpack and many different ways it can be presented and interpreted, leaving a lot to the performers and production team.”

Opera has been an integral part of the Lawrence voice program for almost 60 years, a centerpiece of the performance opportunities for voice students. Under Woodruff’s direction, Lawrence’s mainstage operas have received national awards, including Hydrogen Jukebox (2017) and The Beggar’s Opera (2016), which shared first prize for the American Prize in Opera Performance in the college/university division. Le comte Ory (2018) and The Beggar’s Opera also received first place from the National Opera Association; Hydrogen Jukebox received third place in the same competition. Woodruff was also named the 2018 recipient of the American Prize’s Charles Nelson Reilly Prize for stage direction.

The production is supported by grants from 91.1 The Avenue and the Jewelers Mutual Charitable Giving Fund and the Bright Idea Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region.

Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers will be performed February 14-17, 2019, in Stansbury Theatre on the Lawrence University campus. More information, including ticket information, can be found at go.lawrence.edu/massopera.