Cville's Victory Hall Offers Opera for the Deaf

Feb 27, 2020

Opera celebrates the human voice in song, so it might seem like a contradiction to stage an opera for people who can’t hear.  In fact, that’s what Charlottesville’s Victory Hall Opera intends to do tonight (February 27).

Victory Hall's creative director, Miriam Gordon-Stewart (right), sings while deaf theater veteran Jackie Roth signs in a rehearsal of scenes from Dialogues of the Carmelites at UVA.
Credit RadioIQ

In a large rehearsal space at Charlottesville’s Music Resource Center, six women portray nuns living in France during that country’s revolution.  The opera Dialogues of the Carmelites tells how this religious order faced death rather than abandon their cloistered way of life.  It was a theme that might resonate with a deaf audience, according to Jules Dameron -- a filmmaker, actress, writer and deaf theater director from LA. She spoke with us through interpreter Corrie Pond.

“The deaf community is very small.  It’s very tight-knit, and in a sense we have walls around us," Dameron explains.  "The nuns in the cloister would have walls around them.  The main character is afraid to escape to the outside world, and that’s a prevalent experience in the deaf community.”

In Charlottesville, the founders of Victory Hall opera were looking for an opportunity to expand their audience and challenge their singers.  

“There’s so much in deaf theater that hasn’t yet been explored.  It’s such a fascinating art form,” says Victory Hall's creative director Miriam Gordon-Stewart.

So she and the company’s music director, Brenda Patterson, organized a workshop where they would stage scenes from Dialogues of the Carmelites, modifying the story of this 1957 opera to portray a convent of deaf nuns.

Director Alek Lev is fluent in American Sign Language -- conveying his thoughts to deaf actors in the cast.
Credit RadioIQ

“I know I’m a daughter of God who will suffer for you,” sings one of the actors.

For each singing member of the cast there would be a second actress using sign language, movement and facial expression to convey the story – its drama and emotion.  Dameron, who lost her hearing to illness as an infant, translated the dialogue into American Sign Language – conveying the beat thru pacing of dialogue through visual rhythms.

And she incorpores aspects of deaf culture into the performance.  At one point, for example, an actress stands with hands on hips, while another, behind her, reaches through to sign.

“The deaf actor can see the hands coming through her own arms, and she can see the signing, and it really represents a bond – a relationship and love in a very play ful way,” Dameron says.

Some members of the audience will experience the vibrations of the music – its rhythm, tone and timing -- while others rely on the enriched story-telling of those who sign.

Either way, Gordon-Stewart says the workshop, performed as part of UVA’sl Disability Studies Symposium, will advance the goals of Victory Hall Opera.

“To reach new audiences with this art form, and also to extend the performing capabilities of opera singers – to give them a new skill set, to have them working under new conditions, so that they’re creating theater that is alive and contemporary and not just historical re-enactment.”

The show at Old Cabell Hall begins at 7, and admission is free.