“You’re eyeball babies,” smiled Wolfe. “It’s a lot to take in visually, right?”
It’s the first day of rehearsal and this baby is wide-eyed in a powerhouse circle. I have a lot of experience with starry company, but even so this room shakes me. The women to my left and right have been celebrated from Sydney to Hamburg to San Francisco to Vienna to London to New York, from the proscenia of Broadway and the Met to the sets and studios of LA. They make opera and musicals and music videos and theater and television and advertisements. They’ve had work created specifically for them, and they’ve created work.
We’re doing some opera together. Also, some of us are deaf. To be specific: three singers, a pianist, and I, as well as the production team, are hearing people who do not know ASL – the eyeball babies. The team members who do know ASL include three actors and the translator of the libretto, who are deaf, as well as the director and two interpreters, who hear.
Like I said, it’s a big room. Comfort zone is waaaay in the rearview, and that’s a delicious place to be.
The opera we are diving into is Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and this choice is redolent with all the things I love about Victory Hall Opera and the deep way they program. Victory Hall is in Charlottesville VA, where they refer to their most famous resident as “Mr. Jefferson,” who we all now know spent the first act of Hamilton in France. French generals, ideas, and weapons were part of the American revolution, and a Frenchman laid out the streets of the new capital. As Washington DC was being built, Thomas Gallaudet was graduating from Yale; later he would travel to Paris to study sign language and return to become a pioneer of sign language education in the US. And now we’re all here to explore a story of cloistered nuns oppressed by the French government during revolutionary times.
Like I said: big room.
We’re not doing the whole opera, just a few excerpts as we explore how an entire production done with both hearing and deaf artists might function. We have three days to begin building a common vocabulary and way of working. I’m immediately aware of the vocabularies we share – how a rehearsal room works, how to incorporate and respect the processes of individuals while allowing direction towards a goal. But what we don’t share is a lot: language, syntax, shorthand. Cueing the artists changes when there’s no aural element (the chamber music “sniff” – tragically useless), and the visual communication of conducting suddenly comes up very short against the rich content of ASL. Jules Dameron, our magical genius queen ASL master/translator, begins teaching me some signs to incorporate into parts of my gesture (I am also a finger baby, as it turns out). The deaf actors Sandra Frank, Amber Zion, and Jackie Roth, begin to figure out what they do and don’t need from me. The singers, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Rachelle Durkin, and Jennifer Zetlan, are working with Sandra, Amber, and Jackie to figure out interaction, some of which involves shared signs. Alex Lev, our brilliant director, is allowing plenty of room for discovery, with an eye on the workshop deadline just a few days away.
Every person in this process is bringing it, but we couldn’t go forward without three people in particular. Ji Yung Lee is our pianist, an absolutely gorgeous player who is also flawless in her consistency and response. Singers talk about “getting music into my body” – this means not just learning notes and rhythms and words, but learning the big road map of walking and acting a part along with executing the music. Music is never set in stone, but a firm foundation is a very important part of building that kind of global, physical memory, and Ji Yung provides us with total solidity even as she plays with expressive, lyrical beauty. The hearing singers are grateful to have her sound in partnership. The deaf actors have the much harder and weirder job – more about that below – and for us all to be able to lean on what Ji Yung gives is invaluable.
And the biggest rock stars in the process, to my eyes, are Corrie Pond and Jon Wolfe Nelson, our interpreters. They both jump with ease between English and ASL, interpreting with expression and intention and personality. And when I say personality, I mean that of the person whose words are being interpreted. I feel like I am getting the individual voices of my deaf colleagues through their gestures and faces AND through the interpreter’s speech, and I think my personality is coming across in the other direction. It strikes me that when we are going in between two spoken languages, we often call it “translation,” and when I think of the many examples of translation I’ve witnessed in international rehearsal rooms, I wonder if that’s part of what limits it expressively. We are often trying to get it “right,” but when one is moving from one language to another there’s always an element of interpretation, improvisation, choice. My colleagues who go between English and ASL are very scrupulous in calling what they do interpretation. Jules Dameron made the translation of our text into ASL, in other words, decided on the signs to use, but interpretation is different than that. Corrie and Wolfe are so adept at disappearing into the interpreted speech (which is a process with its own important ethics) that they’ve shied away from being lionized in this process, so with deepest respect and total admiration and gratitude I want to underline here what incredible artists they are.
This brings me to what I think is the hardest job in the room, being done by the actors: executing the ASL translation at a speed that is not conversationally realistic at all. It’s funny, in the world of opera, it seems like Poulenc is fairly real-time with his text setting. But truly, he’s not. It’s opera, words set lyrically and sometimes turning to the extension of the human voice and the musical tempo for emotional impact. He incorporates silence into his composition as well, but in the end all of this is composed. So there’s less leeway in a musical composition than in a written speech for a performer’s own timing choices (actually, it’s possible to radically mess with the composition as well, but that’s not something we’ve chosen to do with this particular project). Hearing singers work for years learning how to incorporate realistic body movement with this enhanced, grand, hyper-emotional singing. So as I watch our deaf colleagues do the same, it feels very familiar to me. And yet I’m blown away with the work they do to put it in their bodies without the aural input. This leads to one of the main takeaways of this workshop: it’s great to have hearing in order to be a musician, but it’s not a requirement. The women in front of me are deeply musical. Music’s a human thing, music resides in deaf people as in hearing people. I can’t know what it’s like to experience music or musicality inside a deaf body, but I know musicianship and musicality when I see it. And it’s here in all the artists, in the notes, in the gestures, in the people.
This big room begins to find its groove. Artists find the way to rely on one another, giving energy, asking in a whole variety of ways for help, all of it non-verbal. And as I watch the hearing and deaf artists begin to rely on each other, as I watch the interpreters looking with experienced eyes where to aim their lifelines, something begins to happen. The characters begin to emerge, which is always magical, but this time there’s an energy in the pairs that squeezes my heart.
How are Jennifer and Sandra finding a common physicality, first reticent and then exalted, for Blanche? How are Rachelle and Amber both playful and irreverent as Constance, how are Miriam and Jackie finding a common body in the fear and ferocity of Madame Lidoine? Is it Poulenc’s composition, which the deaf artists cannot hear but do experience in timing? Is it Jules’ ASL translation, which the hearing artists cannot understand but do experience visually?
At the end of this brief workshop, I’m convinced that it’s yet another thing, the thing we don’t have a name for: the beautiful union of all that energy together, the vibe that is the sum of the powerhouse circle, which makes something else possible. Each artist’s own skill is important, and we all rely on our techniques at some point. Certainly we do that in less fortunate rooms, where the energy isn’t flowing, and that can happen for a whole variety of reasons, even in groups full of goodwill. Here, we all had to be open in mind and heart to an extent we’d never experienced.
Last night, my colleagues looked back at me from the stage, singing and signing the achingly beautiful Ave Maria that Poulenc wrote for his doomed sisters. The sweet and true sound of the women from the UVA choral program joined with Miriam, Rachelle, and Jennifer; all of us did some simple signs to join with the fuller expressions of Jackie, Amber, and Sandra. My conducting had turned into something new, an amalgamation of finger-baby sign with musical gesture learned long ago.
When I turned around to look, I saw that the largely hearing audience all had their hands in the air, waving them silently in ASL applause. That’s when I knew that something new had started. Just as on any other night of theater, the audience had agreed to walk down the road with us.
If you’re an eyeball baby like me, don’t be afraid. Let’s keep going.