A few weeks ago, I sat in a small theater at the National Opera Center for a preview of some of the works being offered at this year’s New York Opera Fest. While there were both traditional and unique experiences showcased that evening, I was particularly drawn to a powerful moment during which three different people came onstage to perform a piece by Jake Heggie. They included pianist Artyom Pak, singer Alexa Jarvis, and actor Christopher Tester, who signed American Sign Language (ASL) as Jarvis sang. It was a haunting experience, not only because of how unique it was but also how it seemed to open up a breadth of new meaning to this small piece.
I discovered in that moment that that is what SIGN & SING is all about. An organization dedicated to showcasing opera performances that can reach the hearing, hard of hearing, and Deaf communities. The company is relatively new and is the brainchild of Katherine Dubbs and has won several awards for her work on SIGN & SING.
Just a few weeks ago, I caught up with Dubbs about the experience of creating and developing SIGN & SING in anticipation of the company’s performance on Sunday, May 21, 2017, at Symphony Space as part of the New York Opera Fest 2017.
OperaWire: Where did the idea for SIGN & SING come From?
Katherine Dubbs: The idea originally stemmed from creating events that were accessible for my family. I later attended “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, a wonderful production by Deaf West, a company that creates programming with Deaf artists in American Sign Language. Their production expanded on existing material so that it conveyed an additional connotation and dimension to the story because it included aspects of Deaf culture, Deaf history, and the oppression of sign language to the growing pains of teenage youth and the painful miscommunication in “Spring Awakening.” They created a moving theatrical experience. Once I discovered that the integration of ASL and the collaboration with Deaf artists could enhance an existing work, SIGN & SING began.
OW: How do you create your programming for performances?
KD: All of our performances focus on stories about listening, communication, and human connection. At this point, SIGN & SING creates programming by taking an existing piece of classical music, written in English, and reimagining its story and meaning. Our performers and team go through the process of interpreting the work in ASL as an artistic assessment of what the text and musical choices are trying to convey. We then integrate these elements and perform the ASL, voice, and piano simultaneously and with equal value.
OW: Music communicates on an abstract emotional level. How do you transmit that feeling of experiencing music through ASL?
KD: Let me give you an example. Last year, our performers – Ren, Tal Heller, and Baron Fenwick – presented “My Mother is a Singer” by Ricky Ian Gordon. In that song, the narrator continually asks her mother to sing, to literally sing as well as to leave behind the burdens of her life and to express her deepest desires. While the English text repeats, the music escalates to connote the multiple meanings of “sing.” Likewise, the signer, in fact, captures this by using different signs each time – sometimes it’s “sing,” while other times she says “express” or “celebrate.”
OW: What are the greatest challenges you have had to overcome in getting SIGN & SING to where it is today?
KD: We are a very new program and something that has been a very interesting challenge in New York City is the lack of accessible venues and spaces. We are very fortunate to be performing at a venue that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and caters to our needs. However, not all theaters or rehearsal spaces are completely accessible. Assessing how we can be more inclusive from the audition process, in fact from the posting of an audition notice to the execution for the performers and audiences is challenging but necessary.
OW: What is the audience demographic?
KD: Our audience is a combination of three different audiences: the hearing, Hard-of-Hearing, and Deaf communities, just like the demographics of our creative team and performers. We continue to try to make programming that integrates all of these communities and that is accessible and artistically compelling for all of them. So a classical music fan may be sitting next to a member of the Deaf community or someone who is Hard of Hearing. That experience is also part of what we do: our audience is heterogeneous and it may be a non-traditional opera audience.
More generally, I think it is important that we continue to serve the audience of opera but at the same time redefine what that audience is. What SIGN & SING tries to do is bring opera to new audiences but also allow veteran audiences of opera to continue to enjoy it.
OW: What have you learned from your first performances and how have those lessons affected your approach for your upcoming shows?
KD: Last year we focused on music that had a song cycle format and were short pieces. We discovered that that formatting does not showcase the narrative power and complexity of ASL the way a longer story would. While last year we had six sets of materials that were each around 10 minutes in length, this year we have three sets that are around 20-25 minutes.
OW: Tell me about this upcoming program and what audiences can expect from it.
KD: Two stories are originally song cycles and one is a monodrama that we are converting into multi-person ensemble pieces. For example, one includes a soprano and has two signers. So, while it might originally have been a piece for one performer, now it features three different storytellers.
OW: How do you hope to grow and expand the way you present opera?
KD: We are looking to do larger projects in the future that will include continuing to reinterpret existing works from the classical canon, while at the same time, developing new work to support our artists. As we grow, expand, and continue to develop the rehearsal strategies and community necessary to maintaining an opera program, the goal would be to continue to do work at this scale while doing work at other scales. We do have projects in development that include ASL poetry and new compositions, and I look forward to working with our community to present these soon.