Heartbeat Opera’s ‘Breathing Free’ celebrates Black artistic voices

By Kamala Kirk

Derrell Acon, bass-baritone; Anaiis Cisco, filmmaker.   [Image courtesy of Heartbeat Opera]

Heartbeat Opera collaborated with 100 incarcerated singers in six prison choirs to create a contemporary American “Fidelio” told through the lens of Black Lives Matter in 2018. Ethan Heard, Heartbeat Opera’s co-artistic director and producer, had planned to remount the production in Fall 2020, but then COVID-19 hit followed by George Floyd’s murder.

“We asked ourselves, how do we make opera during COVID-19 that sings and embodies BLM?” Heard said. “What if we collaged works by Black composers and lyricists with excerpts from ‘Fidelio’ and called it a virtual-theatrical song cycle? Or even better, a visual album? How do we meld opera-making and filmmaking? ‘Breathing Free’ is our protest. It is the imperfect and often painful work of taking anti-racist action. It is our artistic fight for survival. And it is an offering — a gift. We share this virtual experiment with love and with hope that you will find inspiration in these songs, this film, these questions and conversations. The work continues.”

“Breathing Free” is a curated and ambitious song cycle directed by Heard that is dedicated to the celebration of Black artistic voices. The 45-minute “visual album” features nine interconnected music videos with three singers, three dancers, eight instrumentalists and a robust creative production team.

It also features the voices of more than 100 incarcerated singers and 70 volunteers from six prison choirs: Oakdale Community Choir, KUJI Men’s Chorus, UBUNTU Men’s Chorus, HOPE Thru Harmony Women’s Choir, East Hill Singers and Voices of Hope.

Cast members rehearsed remotely on Zoom and recorded their individual audio tracks at home, then the music team layered the tracks together. Heartbeat Opera’s filmmaker Anaiis Cisco collaborated with cinematographers to film the performers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

“Our soprano Kelly Griffin suggested we incorporate Negro spirituals into the project — a wonderful idea — and her rendition of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ is a highlight,” Heard shared. “Later, we chose ‘Balm in Gilead’ as our prologue and epilogue — a vision of healing and community. Langston Hughes wrote gorgeous lyrics for two of our songs: ‘Lovely Dark and Lonely’ with haunting music by Harry Burleigh and ‘Songs to the Dark Virgin’ with ravishing music by Florence Prince. Early on, we envisioned Florestan’s aria from ‘Fidelio” alongside Malcolm’s aria from Anthony Davis’ ‘X.’ Both characters are in prison responding to injustice with strength and passion.”

Heartbeat Opera’s West Coast premiere of “Breathing Free” will be presented online by The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, and Saturday, Feb. 13. The presentations will be livestreamed along with live opening remarks and post-screening panel discussions featuring artists and activists highlighting the timely themes presented in “Breathing Free.”

In the Feb. 10 panel, Stories of Transformation, artists will share their creative and inspiring work within prison populations. The Feb. 13 panel, Proposition 17 & Restoring Rights, will feature a discussion and education about California’s recently passed Proposition 17 restoring voter rights to post parolees in the state.

“We hope folks will love the variety of stirring music — from Beethoven to Anthony Davis to Negro spirituals — and the beautiful visuals of singers and dancers in NY, LA, Chicago and other cities in the Midwest,” Heard said. “Hopefully viewers will hear the work of a composer or lyricist they haven’t encountered before and they’ll experience opera in a new, contemporary and filmic way.”

Heartbeat Opera was founded in 2014 by Heard and Louisa Proske after they graduated from Yale School of Drama’s directing program. Since its inception, it has created radical adaptations of classic operas in intimate spaces for 21st century audiences and established Heartbeat as a highly respected and innovative force in the opera world.

“‘Breathing Free’ has blossomed out of tough questions and challenging times,” Heard shared. “A devoted team of more than 30 artists came together to ask these questions of each other, of our history, of our art forms and about our future. We wrestled with Zoom, recorded in closets, waited in line for COVID-19 tests, and we drew nourishment and purpose from a shared mission: to uplift Black artists and to celebrate opera during dark times.”

For more information, visit heartbeatopera.org and thebroadstage.org