[UPDATE: September 12, 2023; our ASL Opera Project website is now live! Join us there for new videos, translation updates, and for consultation concerning the right interpretation of Opera in American Sign Language!]
[UPDATE: July 11, 2023. Janna and I met with the Metropolitan Opera to discuss heightened ASL interpreting for their performances. The meeting was positive, forward-thinking, and hopeful!
We will soon update with more information! Here’s the July 11 update!]
My delightful wife Janna Sweenie and I are big lovers of opera. Opera is the pinnacle of all the Performing Arts — Painting, Acting, Voice, Costumes, Lights and Sets — and when put together, in unison, in an exaggerated and elevated performance, the entire world glows and resonates! We have always been dismayed that opera is not often, if ever, interpreted in American Sign Language for the Deaf like all Broadway shows are interpreted. Janna and I are currently working on our “Opera Project” where she will present ASL renderings of famous opera arias. We will place those performances online as proof-of-concept. This is a challenging, but rewarding, and complex academic process of interpretation and adaptation, and implementation.
Here are some of the dramatic, visual, description-rich arias we plan to present in ASL. We will begin with:
Here are other arias we plan to perform — these recommendations are thanks to our friends in the Reddit /opera group — many who who believe in us and who are helping us:
If you have a favorite opera aria you think would make a good, dramatic, visual, ASL performance, please leave a comment here, or send us a note!
In the spirit of this dramatic ASL aria project, we sent a letter to The Metropolitan Opera in New York City asking if we might help them set up select American Sign Language interpreted performances. We were not able to find a single point of contact for that request at The Met, so if you happen to know someone there who might be amenable to our request, please get in touch with us!
What follows is the letter Janna and I submitted to The Met asking them to let us work with them to create select, accessible, ASL interpreted opera performances for the Deaf.
American Sign Language Interpreted Performances at The Met
Will you allow the Deaf to sing at The Met?
We apologize for including more than one point of contact for this inquiry, but we didn’t know who is responsible for accessibility for performances at The Met, and we didn’t want this message to get blackholed, and finding specific email addresses has proven a challenge. If we don’t have the right person, might you please forward this email to the correct point?
My wife and I are interested in providing American Sign Language interpreted performances for The Met.
My wife, Janna Sweenie, originally from Iowa, is Deaf and has been teaching ASL for 50 years. For the last 35 years, she has been teaching ASL at NYU and at other major universities in the Tri-State area. She is a language pioneer, and served as a Julliard/TDF instructor for interpreting Broadway musicals for interpreters from around the world. Janna also finds jobs for the disabled as a rehabilitation counselor for the State of New York.
I am Hearing, and I have written several ASL books with Janna. I created the ASL program at CUNY-SPS, and I operate the HardcoreASL.com and sosASL.com websites. I also teach American Sign Language, Theatre, Dramatic Literature, and Public Health. Fresh from Nebraska, I started in New York City as a graduate student at Columbia. I was Peter Stone’s associate. I was Al Carmine’s librettist and lyricist. Milos Foreman and I worked together on film theory in performance. Liviu Ciulei and I collaborated on my Wozzeck adaptation. I was an editor and consultant for Helen Merrill. I fixed dramaturgical structure for Marty Richards and Sam Crothers at The Producer Circle. Since then, I’ve written several books on a variety of topics, done a lot of teaching, and I am now embedded in AI Art, Voice, and Performance research, and revolution.
Janna and I both admire and appreciate opera, and we would really like to provide live ASL interpretation – stage right in the audience near the stage – for select Met performances. We are not seeking payment, we are just hoping to open a dialogue, and perhaps even begin a relationship with – The Met – to see if you are at least willing to try out this idea in some meaningful way for the Deaf Community.
Here are a couple of common concerns you may have:
1. You already provide text captions. Text captions are not ASL and text captions are for Hearing people who don’t understand the language being presented on stage. ASL is a visual language, and many Deaf people do not have good English comprehension, and so providing interpreted performances in ASL, in their language, honors their Culture, and facilitates inclusion in the experience. ASL grammar and syntax are more French than English. ASL was invented by Laurent Clerc, a French speaker. ASL does not equal English text.
2. You stream HD Video and Open Captions. Interview portions of the shows are not captioned. Text translation captions during the performance are not a substitute for experiencing a live performance. The Deaf have the right to be provided the same in-person opera experience that the Hearing audience is able to enjoy in real time, in the same building, with the orchestra and on stage performers. Few realize how much the Deaf enjoy the sounds of music and the vibrations of live music. The Deaf see with their eyes; the Deaf sing with their hands. The Deaf Community appreciates a full, immersive, experience that can easily be provided if you give us a chance to make this happen.
3. The Deaf Community isn’t interested in opera. Sometimes, as Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until they have it.” Opera is the same way for the Deaf. There has been no exposure to the music, no teaching of the ideal, no attendance of the aesthetic. Many Deaf have no clue what they’re missing in an interpreted opera experience at The Met. We can solve that with you. We can demonstrate the beauty of the Art and bring in a whole new audience of appreciation.
For many years, all Broadway shows have been live interpreted via the TDF. We understand The Met has been kind, and wonderful, in providing disabled wheelchair access for performances. Why doesn’t The Met offer the same, disabled, groundbreaking inclusion of the Deaf? You can if you decide in favor of a reasonable accessibility.
If you have any questions or concerns for us, we are delighted to answer them in email or in person.
Janna and I would love to have a meeting with you to discuss the viability of this idea. Janna will even do a live, ASL interpreted, presentation of “O mio babbino caro” for you if you are interested.
We realize ASL interpreted Met performances will require many hours of preparation on our side – the translation from the original language to English to ASL will be important to get right, and we will work with you to get there – as well as also involving several accommodations on your side; but we know this should be important to The Met, and for the Deaf community, to finally be brought together to unite in unison of purpose and performance.
Yes, together, we can help the Deaf sing at The Met!
We have yet to receive a response from The Metropolitan Opera. If, and when, we receive a reply to our inquiry, we will update this article as necessary.
In the meantime, be sure to get in touch with The Met and let them know you support American Sign Language interpreted performances for the Deaf!
(NOTE: All images in this article were created with AI. These people, places, and dreams, do not exist — even though, perhaps, they should find life.)
UPDATE: June 2, 2003
Via Medici.tv, we discovered a 2019 performance — Don Pasquale de Donizetti — at Opéra Orchestre national Montpellier Occitanie Pyrénées-Méditerranée that included French Sign Language interpretation on stage! Here is the PR blurp:
This highly theatrical staging by Valentin Schwarz at the Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier, starring Bruno Taddia in the title-role, Julia Muzychenko in her role debut as Norina, as well as Edoardo Miletti as Ernesto, is also the first time an opera is adapted and staged in the French Sign Language (LSF), with LSF actors Katia Abbou and Vincent Bexiga playing a full role in the action.
Here is a screenshot — (not AI!) — from the HD performance:
Now, it’s The Metropolitan Opera’s turn to stand up for accessibility and the disabled!
UPDATE: June 3, 2023.
We have acquired several domains for use with our “ASL Aria” videos and “ASL Opera” performances — among them are AriaASL.com and OperaASL.com — which will point to our future projects.
Right now, those domains forward to this article.