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Cville company offers opera for people who are deaf

Victory Hall Opera will perform an original production of Orpheus and Erica featuring top actors who are deaf
Victory Hall Opera
Victory Hall Opera will perform an original production of Orpheus and Erica featuring top actors who are deaf

Opening night is less than a week away as Victory Hall Opera prepares for a one-of-a-kind performance. The rehearsal room is filled with sound, but some cast members don’t hear a thing, and some members of their audience will also be deaf.

“The goal with this project was to try to create a piece of theatre that could really speak to deaf and hearing audiences alike.”

Music director Brenda Patterson is singing a lead role in Orpheus and Erica – a mash-up of a Greek myth.

“On their wedding night Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus convinces the gods, through his singing, to let him go down, open the gates of the underworld to retrieve her.”

The contemporary tale of a deaf couple written was written by Victory Hall’s artistic director Miriam Gordon-Stewart. Like Orpheus and Eurydice, Orson and Erica are fighting fate when she battles cancer and the risk of infertility.

“Whether it’s illness or the family that we wish we had, we as humans tend to sense what the destiny is and then really struggle to change it, and in that struggle probably a lot of art is made, but also a lot of pain is caused.”

The opera is in Italian, while the deaf actors use American Sign Language, and both will be translated into English subtitles. Patterson says the actors are big names in the deaf community, coming from Los Angeles to perform here.

“One sign of success in the deaf theater world is if you’ve signed the national anthem at the Super Bowl," Patterson says. "All three of these actors have done that. These are all people who have huge followings, huge careers in film, stage, deaf theater, so for us as opera singers it really raises our bar. We don’t usually get to be on stage with actors at this level, so we’re learning just from their stage craft.”

For the deaf performers it’s also a learning experience. Again, Brenda Patterson.

“We have conducted a few experiments just for fun in the rehearsal room for some of the deaf people who expressed curiosity," she explains. "They were able to feel the singers’ faces while we’re singing – feel the vibration in our bodies, feel the Inside of the piano while the pianist is playing.”

And for the opera singers, Gordon-Stewart says, this collaboration has expanded the definition of music.

“Is there something spiritual about it? Is there something energetic about it that transcends our understanding and that passes through our cells in a way that almost bypasses our hearing and enters the spinal column?”

Deaf actor John Maucere – speaking through interpreter Alek Lev – says he will use a more expressive form of American sign language – in this performance.

“It’s deeply emotional. It’s very physical. It’s big. It has this rhythm to it. I can do that in the sign language poetry that’s in this play.”

He expects a sizable audience to attend on March 21, 23 and 25 at UVA’s Old Cabell Hall, with students, faculty and graduates of Gallaudet University – a school providing higher education to the deaf community -- coming down from D.C.

“Obviously 99% of theater is for hearing people, so when you have deaf theater somewhere, you have audiences flocking to come see it.To see sign language on stage is going to bring people into the house.”

And once it’s a wrap in Charlottesville, Patterson hopes the show will travel to other cities where deaf and hearing people might find this performance a compelling learning experience.

“If you’ve ever been remotely curious about opera or deaf theater, or if you like any form of theater, I would say just give this a chance – show up , and I think you’re going to find that it’s incredibly beautiful, incredibly moving. It’s going to be really extraordinary.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief