A Quiet Life – not your usual opera

Have you ever wondered how an opera may appear to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing? Considering an opera is ‘an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting‘ you would imagine that someone who cannot hear may choose a different activity or pass time.

Sarah Grange of Release the Hounds clearly wondered the same thing and after discovering the fascinating life of Annie Jump Cannon, the American Astronomer (1863-1941), decided to produce an opera for those that can hear, and those that cannot.

Annie was an astronomer who studied stars at Harvard University, USA. Sarah first read of Annie in a book called Big Bang, about astrophysics. Sarah’s ‘a closet astrophysics obsessive, and collects forgotten female heroes‘. This discovery matured into learning about sound art theory and Sarah started to really think about listening and what sound is. All of this came together to make an opera after bringing the idea to Stephen Bentley Klein who has a deaf daughter.

The opera ‘A Quiet Life‘ is about a crucial moment in Annie’s life when her mother dies and when she starts to lose her hearing. These moments are brought together as a multi-sensory opera set in America in 1894.

A Quiet Life opera

So, how do you put on an opera which people with hard of hearing can enjoy, you may ask?

The fantastically innovative team behind the opera had thought of everything. The opera was an experience. You were invited to move around, play, touch and be curious (but gentle!). There were no chairs to sit on.

photo by Louise

The cast were stood in a semi circle on chairs/boxes with a pianist, conductor and various other instrumental additions in the middle of the room and around the edges were experimental pieces to enjoy the music.

Placed around the room:

  • Was a large screen with the words projected onto it…
  • Were the singers used sign language in a beautifully choreographed manner to explain what they were singing…
  • Were buckets of water with speakers immersed in them produced ripple effects as the words were sung…
  • Was a plate with talcum powder sat on a speaker and shapes were formed through the vibrations…
  • Was a hanging speaker produced vibrations as you placed it against your chest to feel the music…
experimental pieces

water ripples, microphone, sign lanugage, talcum powder

People from the deaf community don’t get the opportunity to attend musical events and this is designed to include everyone.’ said one of the performers interviewed on the BBC.

It was such a unique piece to watch, listen to and take part in and incredibly thought provoking to think how someone with little hearing would experience it.  Sarah wanted to ‘make the piece accessible to people with hearing loss; captions in the piece, sign language and speakers set up in unusual ways‘ and she definitely achieved this. The words were wonderful, the music was beautiful, the singing fantastic – I highly recommend seeing the opera if you get a chance. I’m not sure if another date has been arranged so it may be a case of ‘watch this space’.

Riverside Studios

A Quiet Life was performed at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith on 11th and 12th August as part of the Tete-a-Tete Opera series. There’s a fantastic recording and interview on the Tete-a-Tete website.

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