In the heart of West Hartford, Connecticut there is an opera company striving to break down barriers, engage their community, and create truly meaningful art. Hartford Opera Theater is proud to offer high quality, affordable opera for members of their community while creating a “safe environment in which emerging and established artists can feel free to collaborate and create.” In a recent initiative known as Opera Without Borders, the company partnered with the American School for the Deaf to close their season with a production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. This production featured American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation for the deaf community as well as touch tours and audio describe seats for the blind community. I had the opportunity to interview several members of The Tender Land’s cast and creative team to gain insight into the unique challenges of this production.
Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land premiered at New York City Opera in 1954. The opera tells the story of the Moss family: Grandpa Moss, Ma, and Ma’s daughters, Laurie and Beth. Grandpa Moss has just hired two itinerant workers to help with the harvest amidst rumors that two young strangers have been causing trouble in town. Laurie is about to graduate from high school and ends up falling in love with Martin, one of the hired workers. Ma suspects the new workers are the same strangers who have been causing trouble. Regardless, Ma and Grandpa Moss do not approve of Laurie’s newfound romance. Laurie plans to run off with Martin. However, the two men leave without her, fearing the trouble her flight could cause. Laurie decides to leave home and make her own way in the world, despite protests from her mother and sister. In the opera, Laurie's sister Beth is isolated from her family although no explanation is provided as to why this is the case. Hartford's production made the choice to portray Beth as someone who is deaf growing up in a hearing family. Nikita Mallach, who played Beth, signed her role in this production and Lisa Williamson, who played Laurie, is the only other person onstage who uses ASL. This added element gives the audience a reason why Beth is ignored by everyone but Laurie and makes Laurie’s departure all the more devastating for Beth at the end of the opera.
Kristy Champbrelli, stage director for The Tender Land and the Associate Artistic Director at Hartford Opera Theater, spoke about the themes of communication and miscommunication in the opera. “For me, the unifying struggle in The Tender Land is communication. Everyone wants to be heard; it is a human need. I wondered why there was such an incredible disconnect between Ma and Beth, why Grandpa never even acknowledges Beth, and why so few characters interact with her. I wondered what would happen if she were deaf and that communication was an obstacle in the family. Laurie has learned a lot of ASL in order to communicate with her sister, but Ma doesn’t even make an effort until the very end of the show. We see this major turning point in Ma’s final aria when she makes eye contact with Beth for the first time and attempts to sign and gesture some of her final lines to her.”
Elena Blue, the sign language director, elaborated on this theme by explaining how Beth being deaf in a hearing family changes the significance of the story. Lisa Williamson, who portrayed Laurie, suggests this added element provides additional motivation for Laurie to leave at the end of the opera due to the tremendous pressure she has experienced as the only one who can speak with her sister. Williamson states, “[at the end of the opera], Laurie feels like she has to leave if she has any hope of living her own life.”
Williamson, who both sang and signed her role, had very little experience with ASL prior to this production. Williamson said, “When I first learned about the concept from our director, Kirsty Champbrelli, I thought it was a really brilliant idea and I was game for anything.” She admits the challenge of singing and signing simultaneously ended up being a bit more daunting than she expected, but it was a challenge she was more than willing to face. Williamson’s biggest obstacle was the coordination between her hands and mouth. “I thought it would be like choreography, which, as a former dancer, I thought would be a breeze. But getting comfortable with it took a bit longer than I thought [it would]” said Williamson. Because ASL is a language of its own, it does not directly translate from English. Williamson worked with a coach who translated everything into ASL, which she then learned separately from the music.
Elena Blue explained how ASL changes when used onstage. When a person tells a story in ASL, the person must draw in the air what they are speaking about. For example, if two people are walking down the street and a house catches one of their eyes, one person may sign “house”, point to the house, and then sign “beautiful.” When storytelling, however, the house is not physically there, so a signer will draw the house in the air and indicate to and around it. Hence, signing on stage is essentially an art form onto itself. It is visual storytelling.
Champbrelli believes this aspect of ASL added a new level of complexity to staging the opera. “Certain angles and positions that you would use in opera will not work. We were constantly adjusting staging to make sure the singers had a clear view of the conductor but were also in a good position to be understood.” She also spoke to the fact that she rarely noticed the language barrier between the hearing and deaf members of the company due to the incredible level and range of expression ASL provides as a tool for communication. She especially commended the expressiveness of Nikita Mallach, who portrayed Beth, saying “she is one of the most expressive people I have seen onstage.” And this is what Hartford Opera Theater hopes to continue to create: highly expressive, meaningful, and engaging art.
The purpose of Hartford's Opera Without Borders initiative is to truly put their company slogan, “Opera for Everyone,” into practice. This season alone the company has accomplished a tremendous amount toward achieving this goal. The company started their season with the “New in November Festival,” which engaged contemporary composers and supported new works. In April, Hartford hosted the world premiere of David’s Wolfson’s The Faith Operas, an opera composed of several vignettes addressing issues related to faith and religion.
According to Kristy Champbrelli, Hartford Opera Theater plans to continue their Opera Without Borders initiative into next year with a focus on physical borders and ways to engage more of the Hartford community. Plans include performing Candide in a more site-specific location and continuing to build strong relationships with the American School for the Deaf and the Yale Repertory Theatre.
If you are interested in hearing about upcoming productions, reading about the people involved with the company, or learning more about Opera Without Borders, please visit Hartford Opera Theater’s website at hartfordoperatheater.com.