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Upbeat Live: Beethoven’s Fidelio with Kristi Brown-Montesano • LA Phil 2021/22

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This talk was given at the performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio with Dudamel and Deaf West Theatre at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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Episode Transcript

Kristi Brown-Montesano: Good evening, everyone. I'm Kristi Brown-Montesano I am part of the Upbeat Live faculty here for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I'm also chair of music history at the Colburn school across the street. And I really cannot understate how excited and honored I am to be here on this stage with the creative team, many members of the creative team involved with this extraordinary production of Beethoven's Fidelio. So, I will introduce everybody here as best I can. Let's see if I can get it. All right. So, Alberto Arvelo is our production director, he is our director of this amazing thing that we are all here to see. So, Alberto or Beto as we call him (audience applauds) so I'm going to try to get this right, Colin, I swear I'm going to Colin Analco is our ASL choreographer? Right? Yes, a wonderful reaction there, for amazing things that are going to happen. And DJ Kurs is the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, who is also here. And I would like to say just a little bit about opera. Just as the musicologist before we delve into the production, opera is not the common fare here at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It is something we expect to see at Dorothy Chandler. It is to me heartening as an opera scholar, to see the flexibility, the life the way in which opera can be adapted into many forms, into many ways of communicating the content. It is very old. This is a genre that really came to birth at the very beginning of the 17th century, right around 1600. So, it is an old genre, it has many traditions and conventions. But there is an important part of opera, which it was never meant to be just musical. It was about music as a way to communicate narrative. And that narrative involved strongly a visual component, not just the sets, but the gestures, and facial expressions of the singer actors. This is not a side issue for opera. But it is essential to its original nature. So, for all of opera, the opera worlds, let's say privileging of great singers, which is understandable. The genre is actually more than that. And when it is produced, that is a chance when it is staged, and as staged art. It can take new life, new shape. And tonight is an extraordinary example of that beautiful, beautiful, essential nature of opera. DJ had a question that I think is a wonderful place to start, which is how particularly Beethoven, Colin, had to think about this. How would you center this production around a Deaf for Deaf audience and for Deaf artists, working with hearing artists? And I certainly hope, also a hearing audience, but how do you center it for Deaf artists and a Deaf audience and make it a new sense of opera?

Colin Analco: This has been the most extraordinary experience first of all, from our initial vision of bringing together I you know, we tried to figure out what it's not about following a particular formula. It's about bringing a vision to life. And we each of us the Deaf and hearing artists bring something together, we're not bridging a gap, we're building a freeway or a highway. And we've grown. So, we've got, you know, it's like we've we've got watering plants on either side of our freeway. And they've grown. Again, really, it has been a tremendous learning experience where you're working with different languages, you mentioned how many languages in this production, five different languages are involved in this production. And we had to figure out how to mesh them together and create this beautiful form of art. It required a tremendous amount of patience of thought and communication, we'd make suggestions, we'd say, Hey, can you meet me here? And then the other artists would say, of course, we can meet you here. So with the right heart and the right mind, we've been able to build upon that initial vision. Did you want to add anything better to that? 

Alberto Arvelo: Yeah, I absolutely agree. Well, first of all, thank you for being with us here. This is the it's been an extraordinary journey for all of us, as Colin was saying, this is, I would say, for all of us a sort of revelation in terms of a collective effort. And, and also understanding, you know, it's not only learning but understanding many other things, including music, by the way.

Colin Analco: Indeed he mentioned music, you know, my understanding of music, what music looks like what music feels like, from the starting point until tonight, I can't even tell you how much the intention of music; music is a language unto itself. And it's a world unto itself. And I've learned that and figuring out how to do this, to put these puzzle pieces together to create movement and visual expression and artistry. This experience has taught me so much. And it's been able to, I've been able to bring ASL to it. And in doing so, it's been such an incredibly rich experience, to find ways to express music visually. And it's really been a new learning every single day.

Alberto Arvelo: And actually, we should say, I have to correct we said five languages. It's actually six, because we have to include music. And, indeed, Yeah, indeed. And definitely, and I think, for all of us, Fidelio was premiered in 1805. From that very night, there is a depth I think, a deep connection. With this piece and a Deaf audience. Since its conductor, Beethoven was seated in the audience without being able to hear Fidelio. And so, this is probably the first time that Fidelio can be recreated for the Deaf audience. And in this profound effort, every single bar of this opera, we have been trying to recreate music, in, in basically poetry, visual poetry. And in I would also say even love, which is what we are doing here. I think we are all united, different languages, different origins. This is basically a project of integration, all of us searching just one thing, beauty for all of us. It does it for all audiences. And I think this is exactly what we have been feeling throughout this process. And Master Dudamel was saying a few days ago. Now I finally understand Fidelio. He composed this being Deaf without any physical connection, it was all coming from inside of him. So, in a way, the only possible or the real way to understand what is happening here is through this collective search. I would say this, there are five six languages, but it was just one just beauty period.

Kristi Brown-Montesano: It is in fact, the struggle that Beethoven had with opera. We you know, everybody thinks of Beethoven it's a kind of buzzword for great musician, great composer. He really struggled with this work almost as hard as he struggled with any work that he wrote and composing was not easy and not because of the Deafness. But because some musicians it is just like writers or any artists, it, it takes something out of you there are sketchbooks filled with things crossed out. It was an editing process. And he was already very hearing impaired when he started Fidelio. But he, the final version came almost 10 years later. So, he was so devoted to this work and to making it come out, right, that he continued to work on it, to revise it to find to make it what that beauty He was looking for the key of beauty. And, as you as Beto said, this was done often from a place of knowing a language you can no longer hear. But you know it. And so, he could still communicate with it. Which is a very extraordinary thing for a musician for us to remember when we talk about that as a language that is not just that's not just a poetic way. It's not just metaphoric, it's real. It was something that he communicated a language, he knew enough that he without being able to hear his thoughts could notate it and communicate it, which is really extraordinary. So, it's a beautiful, it's the perfect opera, in a sense for this innovative staging, which could be carried to any opera. I mean, but this is a great stock start to me, it should not be let's just, you know, Fidelio can be this. It opens it breaks open possibilities for future innovative productions for Deaf audiences. I think we have to think, in general many audiences that might be reached in new ways through opera if there's enough creative will and imagination. How did this start, by the way? How did how did Fidelio Where did the seed of this idea begin?

Alberto Arvelo: I think it was nice to do the male's obsession. He was obsessed with Fidelio. And trying to understand this piece this music that he describes as the deepest, Beethoven's music. And so long time ago, we had a dream to do this. With a bunch of young Deaf actors from Venezuela from the Sistema called Manos Blancas —white hands. But then the pandemic started, the project was, in a way, collapsed. And then, sometime afterward, I had an incredible meeting with DJ. And we started this journey with Deaf West Theatre. And for me, that day started this, what we have today, this connection leads incredible artists from Deaf West Theatre. There's amazing actors, human beings. You know, all of us working together. And I think DJ can tell us much more about this.

DJ Kurs: DJ just keeps looking. other places like maybe I can just sit and enjoy and listen to them talk tonight. I wish I could be in the audience. But really, it's an honor to take this journey with Beto. With Maestro Dudamel and the LA Phil, Manos Blancas from Venezuela, and all of these components that are finding their way together tonight. I think that we looked at what the opera experience means. What does it mean to a hearing audience first of all, and then how can we Take that and create an equivalent for a Deaf audience. And then one of the earliest decisions we made was to translate the German lyrics to ASL. And we said, should we our first question was should we sign in German Sign Language. But we made the decision early on to make this accessible to the Deaf audience members here in the US, because it's probably the first time our Deaf audience members have ever stepped foot into Disney Hall. You know, it's we're witnessing history tonight. And the idea of taking this strange to us language, and the lyrics, it felt like entering a foreign country with unusual and unfamiliar customs and traditions and, moving from that. So thank you, to Beto’s leadership, we were able to find all the answers as we ran into the questions. And we've been able to bring opera through our language and our representation and authentic representation and access and to bring this to life through hands and the body and most of all the eyes. Through the eyes, we can actually see the soul of the music. And if you haven't gotten your binoculars yet, from the lobby, you might want to grab them before. And so you can see the signing as well as possible. I think this really from the beginning, we found out a lot of the answers on the journey. And I look forward to what's to come after this. I think this is the beginning of something really tremendous.

Kristi Brown-Montesano: I'm reminded again, of actually a similarity, a shared experience, both for hearing audiences and Deaf audiences, new to opera. I'm teaching some students at UCLA an introduction to opera class, and they often look mystified. And one of the difficulties is the language because I'm mostly teaching Italian language operas, there will be a German and one French, two, mostly English and or Spanish speaking students. So, there is already in opera because we generally don't translate, we have supertitles, there is a mediation that happens, even for people here. And they often hear the music my students, but they don't necessarily understand it. It is an aural experience kind of formless. So, they're hearing a lot of violins and a lot. They're hearing a lot of that. So then, what does this mean? And as I watched the videos of the production, and of Deaf West's work, and I heard DJ speak about the importance of the Deaf person doesn't think about the mouth. But the face, the body, the hands. And that is essential, actually, to opera because you are usually now we do film people close, but usually was far away. So that sense of the body says this person who's like this, I realized when I'm in a place like this, where there's people far away the body, the hands are so important. I think this may be the most extraordinary chance where it's not by just what the actor chooses to do, but it is communication. And I wondered Colin, if you could talk about particular challenges in making the ASL not just language but musical language.

Colin Analco: Great question. Yeah. As DJ mentioned, we started from the German text and then we analyze the meaning and intent of it. And of course, coming from a background in translating, which I've done I've translated many scripts and from one language to another eight English to ASL. So, using that experience to analyze the original meaning of the Lyric, what the German means what was being expressed, Fidelio it really is all about freedom at the key to Fidelio is the concept of freedom, the theme of freedom. So, for me as a Deaf person, what does freedom mean? What does freedom look like to a Deaf person isn't really It means access. It means access to visual language and visual communication. And I can't minimize that. I can't just I mean to, you know, for information to have access to that that is the world for us, you know. So, as I said, you know, trying to find, you know, this, this meaning through a foreign language and talking about the German text, and then we add in the components of tempo and the various time signatures. And I might have a really long phrase that I don't have much time just to sign everything that's in it, because the musical phrase is very short, or vice versa. And opera is even its own different language, it uses a form of rhyming and so if we want to, we have the endings of, of lyrical phrases that end with a specific lyric that rhymes, and you know, I haven't, we're maybe have three bars to sign three different things, excuse me three bars of timing, and we've got each character singing something different and trying to fit everything that they're saying into that three bar thing as well as repetition is you so much an opera will have the same lyrics sung over and over and over again. And then maybe that will be repeated by multiple characters and finding the turn taking and the repetition in all of that, and figuring out how to be able to convey that that's that was actually a process of getting to the root of the meaning really the heart of the meaning. So, then we have to have everybody match up at the end, we've got to, we've got to have everybody sign this, you know, at the end of the of the phrase, and we can't just have that be random, you know, there has to be a very intentional choice made to the lyric. So, we have a quartet at one point in the opera. And at the end of this quartet, two of the, some of the characters are singing the word sign, which is an inspiration. Or they're feeling inspired, whereas the other two in German are signing. And the interpreter may mispronounce this, but pain, which essentially means sorrow and pain, p, e, i, n, I'm sorry, one of the others. And then we have iron, which is that there's no way out essentially, in context, that there's no way to escape this thing. There's no way out. So we've got two of our actors signing an upward sign, which would represent happiness and hope, one signing a downward motion that represents sadness and sorrow. And then this other third fourth act of character of signing something that creates the sense of no escape. And so we had to play with this over, we discovered so many cool things in the process of translating. So, when you say what was the challenge, you know, finding out what it means not just in terms of lyric, but in terms of the musical language, the tempo choices, the repetition choices, the fact that characters are singing the same thing or singing different things. It's just a one giant sort of journey that we've all been on together.

Kristi Brown-Montesano: I'm so excited by this. I, it's, it's extraordinary, because again, as someone who has to try to teach this art form to students, these are the some of the problems the repetition, the four people singing at once. And so to me, this is this is absolutely authentic to the experience of, of opera.

Alberto Arvelo: Now we have eight people at once.

Kristi Brown-Montesano: That's right. And that that was my next question was this relationship between the singer and the actor? So, the ASL actors and how they coordinated? How what was the coordination like for, for these, and I've heard for crescendo sometimes there are more than a single person coming in. Anyway, I would like to know, how is this working?

Alberto Arvelo: Well, it was, it is not that we have to cast together. And it's a mirror. It's so not that. This is a dance of singers and actors. And it's more than that the singer becomes the actor's voice or the or the actor becomes the singer’s body. It's much more than that. I think it's their soul. It's their spirit, what is happening. It's that deep connection. So, this dance is always moving around, you know, taken different shapes depending what they're feeling. But in some moments, you will understand today that some of the internal, you know, conflicts of these characters are special in such a dark story, as Fidelio is, it's easier now to understand because having two artists working together, provoke dialogue, internal dialogue, it's, you know, Leonor talking to Leonor in a way. And that is new. It's new. It's a new experience for the audience. In some point, we had a seat we were rehearsing the Tullio Norris and our singer Christiane Libor will tell Amelia Hensley are phenomenal actress, you are so powerful, you are inspiring me that deeply that you are making me sing in a different way, understanding something deeper about myself through your effort. So, this is what is happening here. And I think I'm sure you will feel this, you will feel this energy that it's moving all the all the time there. And I have to say something else. This collective effort provoked by Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which is amazing. This is happening here for the first time ever, which is amazing. It's not only us, it's a lot of people helping us. I'm seeing you, for example, there's a bit here or interpreter, working with us trying to find the right words to express, you know, sometimes a crescendo in signs and no having knowledge of everything, English ASL music, and it's a whole team, you know, an operatic, you know, working together, it's I think we are even profoundly lucky to have this amazing group. That's how I feel.

Colin Analco: And if I could add, well, first of all, yes, I could add also that there are moments where you'll see in the opera tonight, where the two will become one, in a given moment, they will merge together. And then then in other moments, you may see the two individuals playing the same character. In a separate moment. If you think of this sort of as a prism, our Deaf audience is watching singers. And it's sort of like, you know, white light, sort of, if I could make an equivalent What's so special about somebody singing, I'm just saying that from a Deaf eye like when I have a Deaf actor, in my, in my in the forefront of my vision, then I am taken on a journey. And I my it's thought provoking, and I. And it's a spectrum of colors. And so we tried to experiment with that and with very different with different characters in different moments and how the characters themselves are growing. And we have, it's been an incredibly unique experience and so grateful for the LA Phil, and the team, they have given us so many tools. Every time we asked for something even though we were maybe a little reluctant to say Could we have this to help this? We were always answered with an immediate ‘yes’. And the support that we've received has been absolutely beautiful and tremendous.

Kristi Brown-Montesano: I love I love this idea of a prism. And I think again, there will be a prism for hearing audiences as well. Because there is something about seeing gesture that even if you don't understand everything, the body telling us something reaches us in a way that is different from the language that the singer is singing. The other extraordinary thing in a way about opera is it does what I say is both spoken time. So whether that's to sign or to use speech, and then there's musical time. And those Arias, which in Fidelio, we have spoken dialogue, and then song as opposed to Sung, reciting sung recitative. Arias in opera and in most songs are a chance for time to go much more slowly, all of those repetitions, right, so you actually have time to take in the prism, because it's not moving in those three bars that Colin talked about, of having to get a lot in at one time. It's much slower, which I hope for both our Deaf and hearing audiences will be an opportunity to really, really look at and take in that prism. Because it is an opportunity. It's built into the genre to allow us that time. And in hearing again, I was listening to DJ talk under video about spring awakenings, which Deaf West did and this idea of often you are, you know, the person signing and the person speaking, they're talking it's a voice in your head. I mean, it's unnatural for us to sit nobody well, maybe we do. But generally you don't start breaking into song. When you're, you know, I'm going to sing about how upset I am. Right. It's happening in here. It might actually happen more with our body first. But opera tries to bring that into a musical capacity as well. So, it's somewhat unnatural. But if you think of it as the thoughts in your head, being both sung and spoken at the same time, then the prison makes not only absolute sense, but maybe even the best sense. So, to have both of those options.

Colin Analco: I think also it feels very natural in a way for as Deaf people, you know, we speak through our eyes, and make eye contact to communicate with one another. And that's where we wear our hearts on our sleeves. We're very, very expressive community, a direct in our communication. And so, for this art form, it feels very perfect. It's a perfect match to express hopes and dreams and that's what we found on our journey. It was a fun surprise to discover that along the way, I

Kristi Brown-Montesano: think we have time at least for one thing I'd like to ask I wanted to just synthesize very simply, this is a story about a woman who loves her husband. And that husband has been imprisoned. And it is clear that justice was not served. This was a personal vendetta, or a political prisoner, or somebody who didn't have access to defense. It's a lot of possibilities Florestan, the husband, we don't see him at first, we see Leonora, and she is has dressed herself as a man to become a guard to rescue her husband. It's extraordinary. Because for those of you who do know opera, opera is it is generally a genre of women dying. They die a lot. They die for love. They die for other reasons. This is not one of those. It is a moment where a woman rescues she comes up with a plan and she carries it out. And at the moment where the person who would like to kill her husband, the person in power threatens her. She says stop. It is since that moment is the heart of the opera. The other side, and Beethoven added a second chorus for the prisoners is the are the two prisoner choruses. And that's where you'll hear I will hope that I will leave this place it is a hope for freedom it is absolutely the idea of freedom of being a human being. So, I wondered if there was a place in one part of the story of the opera that is a particular favorite of yours for you felt like it just maybe it moved you unusually some moment or you thought this is one of my favorite moments of this production.

Colin Analco: For me, it's probably the Quartet. It expresses that life is good. Life is positive the experience of seeing all of this repetition in that quartet coming at me in different from different characters. It feels so close to a visual harmony for me as a Deaf person. And it's a very special experience to watch the Quartet.

Alberto Arvelo: I think I agree with you. I agree with you. Especially in a way that you know, it's interesting what you said because Adorno philosopher said that operas are the films of the 19th century. And, and it's true. And this is probably the first opera by the way, who were a woman is the hero. And there is this quartet when we know who Fidelio is, I mean, she's not Fidelio, She's the owner. And that moment is the essence of everything. It's freedom, you know? Actually, in that moment, all the energies of, of the whole story, in a way merge even the musical lines. And so it's so complex, it's so contemporary, I would say it's even futuristic in a way. It's like, you will talk much more about, you know, much more about music than me, but it's, I mean, there are moments here that I say that, wow, Beethoven was really crazy. You know, it's like, this is amazing what is happening here. And, you know, but to be honest, I'm in love with the whole opera now from the first bar to the last one. Because it's this journey of effort of beauty of, of, you know, passion, hope and sorrow, everything, all the human spectrum. Everything is there. It's a connection always, I'm just, I have been dreaming with about Fidelio for weeks. Now weeks, when I cannot stop. It's, it's, it's, well, it's almost horrible. And I'm absolutely in love with the whole thing. Um, I'm sure you will feel the same. And what Maestro Dudamel is doing with this incredible orchestra. Plus, what amazing actors are doing and amazing singers, and Manos Blancas Choir. Be ready. It's powerful.

Colin Analco: So, I think if I can just ask you what, one thing that really amazed me from Dudamel, he explained something to me, because I asked, I've learned so much about this about music through this experience. And Beethoven wrote this a long time ago, and he brought this forth, you know, it's organic from within him. And in here, you can see that it's from his heart. So, we know that much. But when we really look carefully into the meaning is I was translating this and I would, you know, try something and I said ‘aw it doesn't work, I got to toss it.’ And we tossed so many things. But it was Leonore’s aria that that I found I must have translated four or five different times till we see do we get the version that you'll see tonight. And there's something moment where we signed light coming from the heart, and she is hopeful at this point that she will find her husband, and that was fine, we could get that now. Florestan he has an aria as well, his aira comes after a few different other pieces. And he has light and hope that he has a similar sign. But his comes from external not from internal. And so, this was a beautiful rhyme, you know. So Dudamel started, I asked Maestro and about a particular part in in the musical in the music itself. And so, the female character, you know, she is you said, you know, so many people die. And in this case, we have a female who is representing hope. And then there is a particular instrument, the horn that plays to express this and to me, this was like, my goodness, what is you know, we have Leonore here. And she's being expressed. But this, you know, Napoleon, he also used a horn. And it is to honor to be honored. And so, the fact that Leonore and her hope is being honored by the horn is beautiful. And then we have Florestan, and his hope is actually being expressed through the oboe. So I was trying to think, Oh, my goodness. So, we've got this kind of bold sound in the horn. And we've got the oboe, which has a softer tone to it. It was really just, it blew my mind. And it was an amazing moment. One of my very favorite parts of this whole performance is not it's not so much a moment in the performance, but it's this organic way of looking at music and understanding how musical language goes, you know, is used to mash with ours and create this form of art.

Kristi Brown-Montesano : I, I think we all have to start to get to this amazing production. But first of all, please can we thank our wonderful, creative artists here? DJ, Colin and Beto, thank you so much for your time. Congratulations already on this amazing, wonderful achievement! And enjoy. Good night!