From Yale to New York buzz — an innovative opera company on the rise
Ethan Heard ’07 B.A., ’13 M.F.A. is not afraid of risks. He and other alumni collaborators have been igniting audiences with intimate, modern-day interpretations of opera classics in New York City as part of Heartbeat Opera.
The company brought “Madame Butterfly” into the modern era as the story of a contemporary woman whose lost biracial son is searching for his identity, and they reworked “Carmen” as a jazz-infused story of tensions on the border.
One of their latest productions, a reimagining of Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” may be their most ambitious yet. In this production, Beethoven’s story of a brave woman who breaks into prison to set her wrongfully convicted husband free has been recast as an African American woman, Leah, who dreams she becomes a prison guard to release her husband, a Black Lives Matters activist. The core of Beethoven’s opera — the “Prisoners’ Chorus” — has been captured in the live audio and video recordings of six Midwestern prison choirs comprising over 130 singers, including Voices of Hope, a women’s prison choir in Minnesota founded and directed by Yale School of Music alumna Amanda Weber ’13 M.F.A. Even by Heartbeat Opera’s genre-defying standards, this work breaks new barriers.
“I wanted to do a show with political urgency,” says Heard, the company’s co-artistic director. “’Fidelio’ features a wrongly incarcerated man, a corrupt leader, and a brave, amazing woman who stands up to the system and fights her way through it.”
Capturing a Prisoners’ Chorus that would fit into an intimate show was a challenge. Heartbeat co-music director Daniel Schlosberg ’10 B.A., ’13 M.M., ’14 ’M.M.A., ’18 D.M.A., who arranged the music for “Fidelio,” first looked for authentic voices. In addition to Voices of Hope, the chorus includes the Oakdale Community Choir from the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, the Ubuntu Men’s Chorus from London Correctional in Ohio, the Kuji Men’s Chorus from Marion Correctional in Ohio, the Hope Thru Harmony Women’s Choir from Dayton Correctional in Ohio, and the East Hill Singers from Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas.
In most cases, the prisoners were singing opera — in German — for the first time. To match up vocal tracks, everyone recorded on the same metronome mark. In the live show, each choir is shown and heard singing one segment of the chorus, while Schlosberg plays piano and conducts a live seven-piece ensemble.
“Dan and I had never been to a prison before, and we were welcomed so warmly,” Heard says. “It’s a life-changing experience getting to meet so many incarcerated people, and a profound reminder of how music and storytelling can bring people together and lift people up.”
Heard was a senior at Yale College when he first met Schlosberg, an undergraduate and “amazing pianist” who showed up while Heard was directing “Street Scene.” When Heard returned to campus to attend Yale School of Drama, he was beginning to direct the kind of works that would become the seeds of Heartbeat Opera. Schlosberg created a chamber version of “Hansel and Gretel,” and the two collaborated on a re-orchestrated “Sunday in the Park with George.” Key to their approach was scaling back, bringing the instrumentalists onstage and pulling the audience closer. Heard met Louisa Proske ’12 M.F.A., co-artistic director of Heartbeat, at Yale School of Drama where they participated together in an opera practicum, reworking classic scenes with professional singers and master directors like Christopher Alden. “It was an exciting laboratory looking at how to revitalize classic scenes,” Heard says. “When I got to New York, I wanted to capture that energy.”
Each Heartbeat production relies on a chamber ensemble called Cantata Profana — violinist, cellist, pianist, clarinetist, percussionist, and vocalists — all but one of whom is a Yale School of Music alum. Schlosberg and Heard describe the Yale arts experience as one that allowed them to push boundaries, and supported their desire to try new things. Both benefited from Creative and Performing Arts Awards at Yale to fund their own production.
“As an undergraduate pianist and composer who wanted to perform, it’s all DIY,” says Schlosberg. “You learn how to start being an entrepreneur—it’s a great testing ground.”
Working together in Heartbeat, these alumni have stayed true to their desire to, as Schlosberg says, “bring people into the conversation who have never seen opera before.” One of the company’s initiatives is called “Heartbeat for All,” in which they give away 100 tickets to people who are first-time opera-goers.
“We balance a reverence for the masterwork with an irreverence and youthful questioning,” Heard says, adding, “I think we’re doing Beethoven proud.”
Fidelio is playing May 2-13 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave., New York, NY. Tickets, $15-$50. Use the Yale ticket discount code BULLDOG for $5 off any ticket except for the performances May 12 and 13. Purchase tickets for Fidelio here.