A 200-Year-Old German Opera Speaks to 21st Century America

Heartbeat Opera stages Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at the Met Museum with a social message of the moment

| 29 Jan 2022 | 10:05

Heartbeat Opera put itself on the map in Spring 2018 with a radical reworking of Beethoven’s 1805 opera “Fidelio.” The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New Yorker raved about the production, which returns in February for three performances.

The only opera Beethoven wrote (in several versions), “Fidelio” is a story about Leonore, a heroic Spanish noblewoman, who dons male clothing to infiltrate the prison where her husband Florestan, a political prisoner, is brutally incarcerated by the tyrannical governor Pizarro. “Fidelio” gained resonance in the 20th century in the wake of the Nazi era anti-Semitism and World War II.

Director/Co-Librettist and Artistic Director of Heartbeat Opera Ethan Heard reconceived the piece for modern day America layering in issues of racism, Black Lives Matter, police brutality and sexual identity into a 200 year-old story. Cut down to 90 minutes and updated to the present, Stan (Florestan) is now a radical black activist and refugee who is arrested and disappears into the prison system. His wife Leah (Leonore) infiltrates the prison to search for her missing husband. The governor Pizarro becomes a white supremacist warden.

Also participating are 100 incarcerated singers and 70 volunteers from six prison choirs across the Midwest who perform the moving “Prisoner’s Chorus” via multimedia video.

Straus News spoke to Ethan Heard and bass/activist Derrell Acon (who sang “Roc” or Rocco, the prison warden in 2018 and repeats the role in 2022) about “Fidelio,” Black Lives Matter, music and the responsibility of artists to the community.

You last performed this show in spring 2018 and are bringing it back four years later. Why did you feel the need to revive it so soon?

Heard: “Fidelio” is one of Heartbeat’s most celebrated productions. Our original production sold out its six-performance run. The Met Museum reached out to ask if they could present it, and our managers at Opus 3 Artists thought it would be a great production to tour. We were planning on remounting the show in 2020, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, but the pandemic forced us to postpone. Now, in the midst of our country’s ongoing racial reckoning, this story feels even more urgent.

You have made changes to the libretto you created in 2018 in collaboration with Marcus Scott to better reflect current America. What changes did you feel the need to make?

Heard: We are sharpening language that different characters use to describe protest and violence against Black bodies. We want Marcy [Marzelline] to be less naive and experience more of an awakening. We gave Pizarro white supremacist language that resonates with the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“Fidelio” is a singspiel or opera with spoken dialogue. The sung sections are performed in the original German while the dialogue is heavily rewritten and revised in contemporary English. Was there ever a question of whether to translate the sung portions of Beethoven’s score into English as well to bring it closer to the audience?

Heard: Yes, we have considered performing the whole opera in English, but we love the German, and we think it’s powerful to hear the German up next to the English. Personally, I like the juxtaposition. I like that the audience experiences these intimate, contemporary American dialogues and then hears these grand German arias. That said, our English supertitles have been updated and adapted to match our production and interpretation.

Obviously racially-oriented police brutality and violence towards African-Americans has existed for decades – or centuries – in this country. What is new are cellphone cameras that record the brutal acts which can be shown to the public and in the courtroom and on social media which amplifies Black Lives Matter to the American people. Your “Fidelio” production uses multimedia. How does the multimedia work in the production and how does it link with BLM and cellphones and social media?

Acon: Absolutely. The murder of George Floyd is a chilling example of how cellphones and social media have become crucial in contemporary activism. Exacerbated by the lockdown of the pandemic, this was an instance when we had no choice but to sit, watch, and absorb this small glimpse into the terror of institutional brutality on Black and Brown communities around the country.

Heard: *Spoiler alert!* Instead of pulling out a pistol as in the original opera, Leah uses her cellphone as her weapon against Pizarro. That is her way of throwing him off guard and documenting his corruption.

In this production, “Roc” (Rocco) is a black man who is working for whites in a prison which incarcerates a majority of black men. This production adds the race issue to Beethoven and Sonnleithner’s original story about political oppression, injustice and cruelty. What do you think about the issue of African-Americans working within a biased and racist society and the ways they survive and navigate the system?

Acon: I think it’s awful and deeply nuanced. Roc, like so many Black people in America, does not have the social agency/access to have a real impact on systemic racism and oppression. We did not create these institutions and cannot be expected to dismantle them. He tries to live by his own set of values, which he then passes along to his daughter. He turns a blind eye to the more atrocious aspects of his “duties” in order to survive and retain what little power he has. The victory of our story is the opportunity that this particular set of events affords him to do more.

Heard: Roc reminds me that we are all complicit with our carceral justice system unless we are actively resisting it.

Anything you want to say about your role as activist and artist?

Acon: My role as an activist sits at the center of everything I do - including my career as an artist. I firmly hold that artists must always work to be even more courageous, even more honest. The world depends on it.

Heard: This project challenges me not only to be a better stage director, but also to be a better producer, community-builder, communicator, and human being. It also reminds me every day what great art can do: speak truth to power, illuminate injustice, inspire empathy, and radiate love.

Heartbeat Opera will perform “Fidelio” at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at The Met Fifth Avenue on February 10, February 12, and February 13, 2022.

More information and tickets are available here: https://engage.metmuseum.org/events/metlivearts/fy21-22/beethoven-s-fidelio/

and here: https://www.heartbeatopera.org/comingup