Beethoven’s only opera is about a prison escape. A metaphor for most, a sad reality for too many. This production from The Heart Beat Opera Company brings a unique authenticity to the opera by inviting inmates held in real prisons to sing Beethoven’s famous choral section. For me it is the most effecting performance of the year.
In ways that are difficult to place into words, I found the opera very moving. Discovering that the choir members wrote letters about their experience I eagerly read them to learn more about the prison programs they were a part of and the special people who supported them.
I reached out to Heart Beat Opera to ask if it would be appropriate for me to respond with a letter of my own to express to them how much I was effected by their performance. Dan and Ethan were kind enough to get back to me with their approval and the contact information.
Below is the letter I wrote:
Dear Chorus Members,
Thank you for being a part of the Fidelio chorus.
I was very effected by your performance and letters, so much so that as a member of the audience I’d like to share my experiences with you from the night of the performance.
The night of Fidelio is a cold February evening just after 6 p.m. when I grab the cross town bus from 65th street near the Hudson river. It’s too cold to walk. The windows are dark and everyone looks tuckered out from the work day, the bluish interior is carpeted with specks of bright yellow and red. Thru Central Park the paths from the road can’t be seen where during nice weather the showtime guys perform backflips to 70’s music while people from all over the world walk around speaking different languages (including German) as they walk by people drawing caricatures or selling posters. Central Park can be a spectacle of sights from misty street lamp evenings of playfully jumping rats to sunny day ponds of row boaters and shirtless volley ball players. If you want to show off or shake your thing, the great lawn is where you want to be. Young and old romancers walk around and soooo many dogs. Tourists go crazy taking pictures of our grey squirrels, I guess they are exotic to them, it always makes me laugh. Like New York itself there’s something here for everyone, but now it’s just for ice skaters and the occasional cardinal.
The bus doesn’t go directly to the opera, but drops me off in a part of town I couldn’t afford with a winning lottery ticket. I always feel out of place here until I get across the street. I walk along the outer stone wall of central park to where the opera is being performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art..
This is one of my favorite places in the world. It is like an ark that holds two of every relic from every part of the world and from every time period. It is so enormous you could spend months without seeing all the cool things inside. https://www.metmuseum.org/
The entrance of the museum is a big open space that could easily fit four local churches. From this starting point any direction I turn will take me to a different part of the museum. To the left are hallways busting with classical sculptures of athletes and gods (I’ve filled sketchbooks drawing them). I like drawing things in the museum because it slows me down enough to see details I would otherwise miss). A right turn from there are art objects from the pacific islands like bowls and canoes full of abstracted cartoony faces. Upstairs the paintings are bigger than my apartment and look so realistic you could walk into them for a pick up game of football, to surf the waves of the sea, or to hike through forests. Each frame is like a doorway to another world that always gets my imagination going.
My favorite room up here is devoted to Vincent Van Gogh. His are my favorite paintings full of sunny day color and shapes with rich textures that make you want to reach out and run your fingers along them. When I teach my drawing students about Van Gogh I ask them what they already know about him and someone will always mention that he cut off his ear, and then I ask them to remember something bad or embarrassing they remember about themselves and how they would feel if that was the only thing people remembered about them. I think they get it – we are all ‘multitudes,’ and should look to find and see the best in ourselves and others, it’s always there. (I recommend the collected letters of Van Gogh that are an incredible glimpse into the heart of a lonely artist).
This night of the opera I’m running too late to look around the museum. I turn right from the entrance past giant bouquets of flowers taller than myself toward the Egyptian galleries. The auditorium where the opera is playing tonight is in this section of the museum.
The opera begins with a frustrated Leah on the phone trying to find someone who can help her husband who is in prison. It is tense!
The music that follows, is thrilling!! To the left of the stage the pianist is not only playing but also conducting the violins and horns. This is Beethoven and it’s a privilege to sit so close to musicians playing this difficult music, I can only imagine how many hours they practiced to make these sounds flow together so beautifully.
The singers on stage inhabit the characters so completely that I’m on the edge of my seat following along as Leah disguises herself as a prison guard to help her husband escape. It is amazing to me how actors can become so wholly the characters they play especially when the emotions run to boil. They got my heart racing several times. Toward the end of the opera, I felt like Roc was yelling at me he was so intense and I think that is the point of Fidelio, the opera is an accusation and a criticism toward societies correctional systems.
Of all the characters I find the guard Stan to be the most complex character on the stage. He’s a good guy feeling the pressure of divided loyalties and conflicting motivations. I’m feeling the feelings with these characters when It is time to pan out from these individuals and realize that these characters represent a larger population all with their own story. It is time for you and the chorus.
You stilled my heart with a shining hope that wore thru the sadness. Your part – the chorus – expressed so much feeling far beyond the lyrics on the page. Even though you are so far away, I heard and felt the lyrics you were singing. I have not stopped thinking about them.
This night there were some technical problems and at first when your part came up we just saw a white screen while “O Welche Lust” played. We heard your song but couldn’t see you. The actress who played Leah kept her cool and stayed in character. I closed my eyes and I imagined your voices being broadcast through my hometown, the cities, and then fields of America. There’s something sweeping about the song that feels big and encompassing. Music can be be transporting that way. Your voices delivered a similar sentiment to what I read in many of your letters – hope and belief.
The technical problem was pretty quickly fixed and they played it again. This time we could see you and really appreciate in your faces how you too were effected by Beethoven’s music.
There was a standing ovation at the end. The performers were all on stage when your names were shown on the screen to which all the actors turned with their arms raised up in applause.
This is the 68th opera I have seen and I don’t remember ever being so moved by a performance. I hope this letter shared not too much and not too little of my experience. What I really wanted to write and tell you is that I heard you and you filled my heart with feeling and my mind with thoughts.
Thank You for an unforgettable night,
So What is Fidelio all about? Beethoven’s only opera is a critiques on correctional institutions role in society. The arias of the opera are shuffled with dialogue that tells the story of a man falsely imprisoned for investigating the warden and his wife’s who infiltrates the prison as a guard to set him free. The messaging is strong and rather than end with a murderous ‘eye for an eye,’ it is the humble spotlight of a cellphone that undoes the warden, truth and transparency bring down the warden, not vengeance.
“Fidelio is about hope in the face of despair. In our adaptation, Leah’s husband Stan, a Black Lives Matter activist, has been wrongfully incarcerated by a corrupt warden, but Leah still fiercely hopes she can free him. It is about courage in the face of danger: Leah disguises herself as a correctional officer to infiltrate the facility where she believes Stan is being kept. And love in the face of hate: despite the warden’s racism, love is Leah’s inspiration.” – Playbill
Oh what joy, in the open air
Freely to breathe again!
Up here alone is life!
The dungeon is a grave
We shall with all our faith
Trust in the help of God!
Hope whispers softly in my ears!
We shall be free, we shall find peace
Oh Heaven! Salvation! Happiness!
Oh freedom! Will you be given us?
– The prisoners chorus, O welch lust, from Act I
Notes on the Production:
Derrell Acon, Roc Curtis Bannister,
Stan Kelly Griffin, Leah/Lee
Victoria Lawal, Marcy
Corey McKern, Pizarro
Daniel Schlosberg, piano 1,
conductor Euntaek Kim, piano 2
Nicolee Kuester, horn 1
Kyra Sims, horn 2
Clare Monfredo, cello 1
Nathaniel Taylor, cello 2
Brandon Ilaw, percussion
Complete Cast and Info: