I attended a gala for Heartbeat Opera on 9/16/20. It was their seventh anniversary so they celebrated by hosting seven soirées, which they called The Secret Sauce. Each evening featured a different guest and I chose this night because the guest was Jeanine Tesori, the composer of the musicals *Violet,* *Thoroughly Modern Millie,* *Caroline, or Change,* and *Fun Home.*
I had never heard of Heartbeat Opera until this spring, when I read online about their show *Lady M.* That was originally planned as a live performance but migrated (with two weeks notice) to an online event. I’ve been to about twenty online performances since the start of the pandemic and *Lady M* is head and shoulders above any other performance. Every aspect of the performance was thoughtfully put together with the online experience in mind. Highly unusual and thrilling as an audience member.
The performance started with a video showing clips from each of the Heartbeat performances over the seven years. There was an emphasis on gritty staging, drag, and what could loosely be described as “theatricality.”
Tesori spoke about her long love for Heartbeat and how, to her, they support and literally give voice to women and other marginalized people. She made me wish I had seen some of these other shows. Especially when I saw the final scene of *Carmen.* It was visceral and raw. My favorite element was the orchestral arrangement, which sounded like a ratty mariachi band. I mean that in a good way!
Next up was a sequence of their 2018 production of Beethoven *Fidelio.* In a traditional production, Leonore, the wife of the unjustly imprisoned hero, is masquerading as a man in order to gain access to the prison to free her husband. She flirts with the prison warden’s daughter to get greater access to her husband. In the Heartbeat production, Leonore didn’t have to pretend to be a man, but DID have to pretend to be a lesbian. Even more profound and transgressive, the production featured a chorus of actual prisoners, singing via video from their prisons in the Midwest. Again, I wish I had seen it. Here's the prisoners' chorus from that production:
Next was their 2018 show *Dragus Maximus,* which featured a dragedelic coloratura soprano as Medusa. Her aria was in three sections: it started hilarious, with references to Tupperware and water aerobics. Then, when she talked about her origin story, it was touching and sad. And it culminated in fury and vengeance, and, what we all want, notes above the staff. Thrilling, the highlight of the evening. Here's a highlight reel from that show, with Medusa at 1:15:
They showed a clip from their 2019 production of Weber’s *Der Freischütz.* Again, it was the arrangement that was the most revolutionary element of the production. It took the high Romantic creepiness of the score and made it straight up horror show. I especially loved that the demon character was played by an ubuntu dancer, she was extraordinary.
They wrapped up with a glimpse of their first commissioned opera *The Extinctionist.* Composer Daniel Schlosberg played a bit of the score, which I hope will sound better in the theater than it did on his tinny piano! Here’s the blurb from the Heartbeat website: “A young couple is trying to have a baby. Ice caps are melting. Brooklyn will soon be underwater. Upcycling is the new recycling. The Woman wonders: What if she could save the planet from unspeakable future descruction by sterilizing herself…by becoming the very first ‘Extinctionist’?” It’s scheduled for a stage premiere in the spring of 2021.
We were split into small break-out rooms to do a Q and A with people from the company. An audience member asked Co-Artistic Director Louisa Proske about how an opera company deals with the standard repertoire. Is opera a museum? Is the moment over for the standard rep? Her answer was a resolute No. She brought up the fact that often these pieces were transgressive when they were new. *Carmen* was brought up as an example and we were lucky to have the woman who played Carmen in the Heartbeat production in our break-out room. She talked about how Carmen is often seen as a seductress, as a hyper-sexualized and representational depiction of a Gypsy woman - - but to her, Carmen is a survivor and she has retooled her life to bring her strength.