Activist company

Opera company rethinks Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’ in light of Black Lives Matter

Kelly Griffin and Derrell Acon in Heartbeat Opera’s production of Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’. Photo: Russ Rowland

A man is imprisoned for his political activities, along with countless other victims of the same injustice. The blame lies with a specific bad actor, but the problems are also clearly systemic. Those charged with enforcing this system may not personally agree with him, but they are surely complicit.

Is there an opera more suited to today’s political climate than Beethoven’s “Fidelio”?

The parallels between our own time and that dark 19th century drama of suffering and redemption are hard to ignore. More recently, director Matthew Ozawa’s October production for the San Francisco Opera established an overt connection between the room’s dank dungeon cells and those of America’s prison-industrial complex.

But a production of New York’s Heartbeat Opera, which is heading to the Mondavi Center at UC Davis on Saturday, February 19 for a single tour, promises to make things even more explicit by recasting “Fidelio” in racist terms.

Review: SF Opera’s new ‘Fidelio’ uses chain-link fences and video monitors in a political dish

Derrell Acon (left) and Curtis Bannister in “Fidelio.” Photo: Russ Rowland

The idea, director Ethan Heard told The Chronicle in a recent phone interview, arose following the revisionist production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” with the aim of finding other lyrical avenues for the work of social justice.

“I said to the team, ‘Could we do a Black Lives Matter version of ‘Fidelio,’ where (the prisoner) Florestan is a BLM activist and Pizarro is this white supremacist prison warden?” Heard recalled.

The resulting show, which opened in 2018 to widespread popular and critical acclaim, involved more than just updating the opera’s setting. Heard and musical director Daniel Schlosberg rearranged and reduced the score to a flexible length of just over 90 minutes – as opposed to the traditional 2½ hours – and made a number of changes to the libretto.

This rendition also spotlights Roc (Rocco in the original), the prison guard who is sensitive to Stan’s (Florestan) plight but unable or unwilling to counter the system he has made his career in.

“One of the biggest innovations in our production is this newly written dialogue between Stan and my character,” said bass-baritone Derrell Acon, who plays Roc. “Audiences really get to take a look at the nuanced intra-community interaction between two black people – an older black man who is accused of dancing for the man, so to speak, and this young activist, who has was wrongfully imprisoned because of his audacity to speak out.

“We are able to further observe Roc’s reasoning and understand the moral trajectory of what it means to be part of a problematic system and navigate to be part of a solution.”

Kelly Griffin (right) with an on-screen member of the East Hill Singers in “Fidelio.” Photo: Russ Rowland

A key part of any ‘Fidelio’ production is the famous ‘Prisoner’s Chorus’, in which inmates are briefly released from their cells and exult in the light and warmth of the sun. This represented a logistical challenge for a company with a small budget.

So Heard and Schlosberg contacted choirmasters working in prisons and, over the course of several months, made video recordings of four prison choirs in the Midwest. This video, projected on a screen, is the centerpiece of the new production.

Heartbeat Opera’s “Fidelio” is just one part of a multi-pronged attempt to bring heightened political and racial awareness to the world of opera. It’s a process that Acon – who in addition to his stage career is active as an opera administrator, consultant and lecturer – sees as radical.

“It shouldn’t be drastic, but I discerned that it is radical to believe that all art has a responsibility to intervene in societal conversations,” he said. “Having a point of view is the function of art, and I think we too often lose it through acts of exclusion or elitism.”

The New York-based company, co-founded in 2016 by Heard and director Louisa Proske, embraces its mission through a variety of strategies, both adaptations of existing repertoire and the creation of new works. Past seasons of Heartbeat Opera have included revamped stagings of Bizet’s “Carmen” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” among others.

“We chose the company name because of the viscerality of opera,” Heard said. “We want opera to have an impact on people in their bodies. We love the feeling that opera gives us as human beings and artists which is our blood race.

The aim, he adds, is two-fold: to deploy the standards of opera for urgent political purposes and to introduce new audiences to the art form as a whole.

“I imagine the opera lover, the critic, someone who has seen a dozen ‘La Bohème’, and I also imagine this 15-year-old who has never been to the opera. I want them both to get something out of it,” Heard said.

Kelly Griffin as Leah in ‘Fidelio’. Photo: Russ Rowland

This in turn means a concerted focus on updating and adapting tradition.

“For me, ‘Fidelio’ is about hope in the face of despair and love in the face of hate,” Heard said. “It is about seeking justice and liberation. And when you want to tell that story, we have to tell it with today’s consciousness.

Acon insists even more on this point.

“I’m a big proponent of intervening in existing works, especially ‘classics’, because there’s a knowledge – I would even say, a presumption – of what these stories are supposed to platform. And when you disrupt that, when you highlight a different element or introduce a new character, then that disruption is commonplace,” he said.

“We work within an art form that is considered by so many in our society to be elitist, to be exclusive. So any opportunity we have to disrupt this narrative and derive more relevance, more “here and now”, more experiences, I think we should seize it.

“Fidelio”: Heartbeat Opera. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 19. $12 to $75. Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, 523 Mrak Hall Drive, Davis. 530-754-2787. www.mondaviarts.org