Creating a Black Lives Matter opera in ‘Breathing Free’

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Heartbeat Opera’s “Breathing Free” makes its virtual West Coast premiere tonight, courtesy of the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Best described as a virtual album brought to life in vivid music videos, the show features excerpts from Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” traditional Black spirituals, and songs by Langston Hughes, Florence Price and other Black artists. It also includes the voices of more than 100 incarcerated singers from six prison choirs.

"We wanted to make a Black Lives Matter opera and figure out what that could be, and we decided a song cycle or visual album would be a beautiful way to weave Beethoven in with the works of Black composers and lyricists,” says director and Heartbeat Opera co-founder Ethan Heard.

The opera is performed by a six-member Black ensemble who sing, act, and dance. 

“Movement has always been a part of the Black experience, especially when it comes to spirituals,” says cast member Curtis Bannister. “The body is an extension of the voice. It gives a better understanding of what each person is singing and what the words actually mean — when you're leaning over and you're holding yourself or … when we're taking our necks and going around in a circle. Many times our faces are hitting the sun at a certain part or we're down towards the ground, rocking ourselves back and forth.”

Curtis Bannister, tenor; Anaiis Cisco, filmmaker. Photo courtesy of Heartbeat Opera.

Curtis Bannister, tenor; Anaiis Cisco, filmmaker. Photo courtesy of Heartbeat Opera.

Artists have a special opportunity, Bannister says, to use something that everyone loves and appreciates to bring awareness to civil rights and racial injustice.

“If you see an artist sing or dance about it, and you ask the question, ‘Oh, that dancer looks like they're in such pain, what does this leg extension mean? It feels like there's a certain sort of darkness or heaviness to it.’ Or when you're singing, ‘It feels like that note goes on forever, but there's a tear inside of it. That line is really choppy. It almost sounds like you're crying. What does that mean?’ When people ask questions, and curiosity is heightened. Then as artists, we're allowing people to get to the core of what the issues actually are.” 

Brian HallowDreamz Henry, dancer; Anaiis Cisco, filmmaker. Courtesy of Heartbeat Opera.