Heartbeat Opera began working on its re-envisioning of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, well before Covid put an extended halt to most staged productions and before George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. The company’s effort – which reimagines the protagonist prisoner as a Black Lives Matter activist – received a semi-staged premiere in 2018. With work stopped in 2020, the show was reshaped into Breathing Free, a powerful 45-minute ‘video album’ that combines Beethoven’s music – performed by an all-Black cast – with American Negro spirituals and songs by Harry T Burleigh, Anthony Davis, Thulani Davis, Langston Hughes and Florence Price.

Derrell Acon (Roc) and Curtis Bannister (Stan)
© Russ Rowland

On 10th February, Heartbeat was able to premiere a new, fully staged but scaled back realization of its recasting of Fidelio for contemporary times. The lean and imaginative piece, for a cast of five and musical ensemble of seven, by no means lacked in impact for its economy of scale. 

In Heartbeat’s Fidelio (which travels to Arizona and California following its three-night run at The Metropolitan Museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium), the protagonist Florestan (Curtis Bannister) becomes ‘Stan’ and his wife and rescuer Leonore becomes ‘Leah’ (Kelly Griffin). Leah gains employment at the prison (unlike Leonore, she doesn’t disguise her gender) and gains the favor of Marcy (Victoria Lawal), a prison official, in the nearly vain hope of freeing her husband.

Kelly Griffin (Leah)
© Russ Rowland

The scene on opening night was set with a snare drum crack and ‘stills’ of Stan at a protest in spotlight flashes. Leah was then shown at a desk, in a video conference with her lawyer, eleven months after Stan’s arrest and imprisonment. The stage suddenly opened up into what was nearly a ballet of turning fences and razor wire with Stan, Leah and prison guards circling the stage, their voices and movement layered in strict precision.

The friendship and sexual overtones that developed between Leah and Marcy though central to the plot, became a distraction from the very real tale being woven, that of a Black activist held in solitary confinement. There were other leaps to be made, as well: that the prison guards didn’t carry guns, for example. 

As with the original opera, the dramatic highpoint was the Prisoner’s Chorus, here done in video (a segment that also appeared in Breathing Free) sung by 100 incarcerated singers and 70 volunteers from six prison choirs across the country, male, female, black, brown and white. It was a smart way to handle the segment, making the story actually come to life.

Corey McKern (Pizarro) and Derrell Acon (Roc)
© Russ Rowland

Which is not to take away from the performers in the room. The ensemble of two horns, two cellos, two pianos and percussion was a model of economy in orchestration, sounding wonderfully full within its margins. Acron was strong, broken yet determined, Lawal confident and charismatic. Sadly, Griffin’s voice – on point but with less of a punch – got lost under the others. All five actors moved naturally between new dialogue in English and the updated vocal numbers in the original German. 

Heartbeat’s Fidelio is a dramatic reworking in every sense of the term. It’s bold and unflinching in the manner of other recent depictions of racism in America, from Barry Jenkins’ serial adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad to Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, that borrow from history or the newspapers, or H P Lovecraft, or Beethoven, to tell tales too horrible to tell.