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Lawrence opera students sing and sign in innovative outreach


(PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence University) Lawrence opera students utilize sign language in a new conception of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. The production will help educate hearing audiences about the richness of deaf/hard-of-hearing language and culture, thanks to grants from the Bright Idea Fund and the Jewelers Mutual Charitable Giving Fund, both within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region.

By Megan Scott, Associate Vice President of Communications, Lawrence University

Twenty-one members of the Lawrence University Opera Theatre Ensemble spent two weeks over their winter break learning American Sign Language (ASL). Why would opera singers need to know ASL?

(PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence University)

In a twist on the original production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers, award-winning Director of Opera Studies and Associate Professor of Music Copeland Woodruff has incorporated a deaf character into the production, and explores how people work to understand each other.

Performers will utilize American Sign Language (ASL), as well as Pidgin Signed English (PSE), throughout the performance.

“The use of ASL and PSE underscores the struggle to communicate, particularly between deaf and hearing communications and within the deaf community itself,” says Woodruff of his decision. “My inspiration was two-fold: the obvious metaphor of our current society, where people have a difficult time listening to one another, and the inclusion of community members who might not necessarily attend an opera.”

(PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence University)

Woodruff is working with local partners to explore options for community engagement and dialogue about the history of the deaf community in the U.S. and the world, as well as deaf language and culture.

In tandem with the show, Lawrence students will take part in planned community engagement activities, including a performance of selections from of the opera at Appleton’s Edison Elementary, which serves both deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Members of the production team hope that the opera will reach roughly 2,000 people in the Fox Valley region.

Copeland Woodruff

“It is rare—even at the national level—for a signed opera to be produced and performed,” says Woodruff. “The majority of our area’s theater-going public would not ordinarily experience this type of performance. Mass will open dialogues about faith and inclusion to our community.”

Robert Schleifer, professional deaf actor, Kristine Orkin, local interpreter for the deaf, and two professional vocal/style specialists are participating in the production. Schleifer, along with Lawrence student performers, will sign most of the opera’s lyrics in real-time during the performance. Deaf audience members will also be able to read supertitles.

As a part of the world-wide celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, Woodruff and the Lawrence University Opera Theatre Ensemble will collaborate with members of two local children’s choirs to reimagine Mass, which is structured like a Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass but mixes sacred and secular texts and music.

(PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence University)

“Distinctive productions like Mass provide students with a rich educational opportunity to practice being a singer-actor, hone full-bodied communication skills, as well as develop appreciation and respect for the experience of others,” says Woodruff. “We hope students will learn that the arts can be a powerful vehicle for personal and societal awareness and change.”

Funding for this project is by grants from 91.1 The Avenue,  the Jewelers Mutual Charitable Giving Fund and the Bright Idea Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region.

Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers will be performed February 14-17, at Stansbury Theatre on the Lawrence University campus. For more information and to get tickets, click here.


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