[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!]
On July 11, 2023 — the anniversary of our being married for 35 years — Janna and I had the complete delight, and the absolute honor, to meet with The Metropolitan Opera to discuss our ASL Opera project intended to bring live and “High Art” American Sign Language interpretation to MetOpera productions! The meeting was positive, forward-thinking and inclusive! If you are interested in working with our High Art ASL Opera Project, or if you want more information, please Contact Us and we’ll be happy to meet you!
Our ASL-Opera.com and ASLopera.com domains currently point to this article!
One of our friends has a memory of attending a Metropolitan Opera performance in the 1980s that was ASL interpreted. When we mentioned that to The MetOpera, they were not aware of that history, and planned to ask The Met archivist if there was anything recorded in the record about the performance.
[UPDATE: July 14, 2023: Our friend just shared with us that he has a memory of the New York City Opera — NOT the MetOpera — having some interpreted ASL performances in the 1980s when Beverly Sills was performing and director of the NYC Opera Company.]
Our “ASL Opera Project” pitch was simple, and three-pronged.
First, immediately provide ASL interpreted performances for all Metropolitan Opera performances. There is no excuse to delay the justice of Deaf inclusion. Live interpreters, using our invented “High Art” style of interpreting performances, will match the definition of “Work of Art” in Opera translation! This cannot wait. ASL interpreted performances cannot be sidebarred or downsized. We have moved too far beyond the idea of “separate, but equal” to accept separation now. The Deaf have the right to experience the fullness of a Metropolitan Opera performance — staging, singing, orchestration, lighting, costumes, sets — IN THE SAME MOMENT, IN THE SAME WAY, AND IN THE SAME TIME as a Hearing person. There is no replacement for equality in accessibility — except equal accessibility in situ.
Second, we proposed an outreach educational program that would help expose, and inform, new audiences to High Art ASL interpreted MetOpera performances. Small meetings before the performance would help explain the story, create context, and define expectation of a brand new operatic experience.
Finally, we believe a “High Art” Opera interpreter training program is needed to train new interpreters how to uniquely interpret live Opera performances. Interested interpreters, both Hearing and Deaf, from around the country, and, perhaps even the world, should be invited to spend a couple of weeks at The Met to work with new-opera-stars-in-training, understand operatic staging and experience, and to then sign a performance on the main stage as the high conclusion of their training. There is no replacement for direct exposure and direct experience.
We were also thrilled to learn that all Met Opera On Demand performances are in the process of becoming entirely closed captioned! Right now, only the “operatic translation” part of the Opera stream is captioned. Moving forward (and backward in the existing catalogue of shows) all MetOpera recorded performances will have the introductions, and the interstitial interviews, and anything else, closed captioned. There are more than 150 recorded performances in The Met library, and all of them will eventually be closed captioned. That project will take time, but closed captions are vital for an accessibility accommodation that has been required, by law, for all broadcast television programs since 2006. New Met Opera performances from now on will always be closed captioned!
The MetOpera had a few questions. One was why would ASL interpreters be needed if the Operas are open captioned in English. As we detailed in our earlier article on this topic — ASL is not English-based grammar, it is French-based grammar — and many of the “new” foreign-born Deaf (the new audience) do not arrive in the USA literate from their home countries, and so they try to learn ASL here as their first, real, fluent language, and ASL is not English. There’s then a triple layer of interpretation/complication happening in an Opera. First level is the language of origin, second layer is the English captions, then the target visual language of ASL is applied on top of both of those vocalized and written languages. Plus, ASL is not a word-for-word interpretation of a performance. You have to “sing” for the entire Opera in ASL, and you do that by creating images for the eyes with your face, torso, and hands. Singing, in ASL, is different from just “speaking” dialogue — same as in the Hearing world. A whole new set of special talents are required to sing in ASL for three hours!
The other concern the MetOpera had was that having interpreters would be distracting to the performers, and the audience and, we agreed, that was a possibility — but Broadway musicals have been ASL interpreted since 1980 without issue — but there’s really no way around that concern in an Opera performance because the Deaf deserve to be in the same room with the Hearing people to experience the Opera with all senses and feelings of participation. The interpreters would not be on stage. They’d be House left, and the first several rows of that section would be reserved for Deaf audience members. The Interpreters would need to see the live captioning, and be lighted in some way so the Deaf could see the ASL being signed. Yes, inclusion can be complicated and distracting. Yes, accommodating the disabled can inconvenience the non-disabled. Janna and I like to say, when it comes to education and experience, “You have to do what’s best for the Deaf person, not what’s easiest for the Hearing.” Some people get that, and some do not, and will not; but aesthetic should never be used as an excuse to exclude certain people from the mainstream experience. Taste and vision change over time. Sometimes doing the right thing is tough, and imperfect, but that’s okay. Dealing with difficult things is how the moral world learns to behave in a right way; because it is cruel to separate those who do not have from those who have, based solely upon the ability to comprehend.
The final concern the MetOpera expressed was how to replicate 50 people singing on stage with only two interpreters. Plus, they added, in a scene with five people singing, how could two interpreters possibly interpret all those singers? Janna told them the answer is simple: Role Shifting. The interpreter sets the character in space, and the Deaf person understands who is speaking and why. Role shifting is a common method of communicating in ASL. As well, male interpreters can interpret female characters on stage and vice versa. Gender, cultural identification, and skin color do not matter in interpreting. The only thing that matters is if what is being signed is being understood. “One interpreter,” I said in the meeting, “can interpret a thousand voices.”
We were also asked how Janna is able to interpret for the Opera if she is Deaf. Janna explained she was born Deaf and grew up in the gospel Church signing songs in ASL, she has performed ASL hymns in Israel, and has been a Broadway musical Juilliard advisor, and an interpreter performer. Opera is her most astonishing, and amazing, challenge for her to meet as an interpreted performance. Janna went on to share that she still has some residual hearing, and that she had to practice her Maria Callas ASL performance song “about a hundred times” to get down the meaning, intention, and correct vibrato. Memorization is a big part of live stage interpreting, and you must not only know the story, and the lyrics, but you need to understand the original intention of the author and composer in order to do a right, proper, job in the interpretation. Opera interpreting is not for every Deaf interpreter, that’s for sure!
Our meeting finished with Janna interpreting, in our ASL High Art Style, the Maria Callas performance of O Mio Bambino Caro — and the response to Janna’s performance was marvelous! What an honor!
After our meeting with the grand Metropolitan Opera people, Janna and I “swam” outside into the 93 degree, and 90% humidity heat, and landed smack in the heart of the Lincoln Center plaza to record, and memorialize, her ASL interpretation of O Mio Bambino Caro — and here are the original Italian lyrics followed by the English interpretation for that aria.
O mio babbino caro
Mi piace, è bello, bello
Vo’ andare in Porta Rossa
A comperar l’anello!
Sì, sì, ci voglio andare!
E se l’amassi indarno,
Andrei sul Ponte Vecchio,
Ma per buttarmi in Arno!
Mi struggo e mi tormento!
O Dio, vorrei morir!
Babbo, pietà, pietà!
Babbo, pietà, pietà!
Oh my dear papa
I like him, he is so handsome.
I want to go to Porta Rossa
To buy the ring!
Yes, yes, I want to go there!
And if my love were in vain,
I would go to the Ponte Vecchio
And throw myself in the Arno!
I am pining, I am tormented!
Oh God, I would want to die!
Father, have pity, have pity!
Father, have pity, have pity!
This is Janna’s recorded ASL High Art interpretation of O Mio Bambino Caro — with the Callas performance she’s interpreting right underneath. If you have fast fingers, you can click on Janna’s video, and then quickly click on the Callas video, and they’ll play pretty much in sync so you can get a rough idea of how an ASL interpreted High Art performance of an Opera Aria works!
We shot Janna’s performance in 4K on an iPhone 14 Max Pro using Filmic Pro software with no recorded audio. That raw, two-minute, 4K video was 17 GB! I remember when we first started HardcoreASL.com in 1996 — the best possible video recordings were no more than 100K — and those videos all look low resolution today, because they are, but back then, they were not! Always, always record in the best possible resolution available because, even in a few years, your effort will not look as good as you remember. This is my technical advance mantra: “Best today, better tomorrow, okay yesterday.”
There was also some sort of musical event being set up at Lincoln Center, and I couldn’t resist taking a quick video of the famous Lincoln Center fountain being topped by a bouncing, giant, mirror Disco Ball! The rushing sound of the fountain will cool you down at least a few degrees. Enjoy!
Our 35th wedding anniversary was a day to never forget. We appreciate The Metropolitan Opera giving us a chance to pitch our ideas for an interpreted “work of Art” solution; and we certainly felt heard.
We hope to move forward with The MetOpera to complete the accessibility vision of our “ASL Opera” project — and we will continue to produce, and share, our “High Art” ASL Opera interpreted arias until the day is won!
In the end, we must all continue to lift our gaze to find the sun, and sing — sing in a way we understand how we wish to be understood!