The West coast premiere of Heartbeat Opera’s “Breathing Free,” “a visual album, live streams Feb. 10th & 13th a 7:00 pm PST at The Broad Stage and is available to stream Feb. 20th through the 27th at 7:30 pm at the Mondavi Center UC Davis.  Do not miss this intense work of shimmering beauty.

Heartbeat Opera has achieved something new and remarkable by successfully integrating musical excerpts from Negro Spirituals, and songs by Harry T. Burleigh, Florence Price, Langston Hughes, Anthony Davis, and Thulani Davis and from Beethoven’s Fidelio.”   “Fidelio” is a wise choice as the concerns of liberty and justice of 1805 its debut year, mirror the political climate of today.

This production is meticulously curated by the Creative Team of Director, Ethan Heard, Filmmaker, Annalis Cisco, Creative Producer, Ras Dia, Musical Directors, Daniel Schlosberg, and Jacob Ashworth, Movement Director, Emma Jaster, Directors of Photography, Kathryn Boyd Bastone (Los Angeles) Jacob Mallin (New York and Chicago) and Sound Editor, Gleb Kanasevich.

Heartbeat Opera - "Breathing Free" - Kelly Griffin, Soprano - Photo courtesy of Heartbeat Opera

Heartbeat Opera – “Breathing Free” – Kelly Griffin, Soprano – Photo courtesy of Heartbeat Opera

First and foremost, “Heartbeat Opera” is to be commended for their full commitment to Black Lives Matter, prison reform and diversity.  Every aspect of this “Song Cycle” touches on the issues that have been brought to the fore in recent times but have been with us since the birth of our country.  How do we endure, how do we move forward and how do we “Breathe Free?”  These are the questions posed by this indelible production.

Strains of a Negro Spiritual are heard over the beautifully appropriate moves of the three accomplished dancers Randy Castillo, Tamrin Goldberg and Brian “HollowDreamz” Henry.  We meet these performers alone, in their own space, a courtyard, a park, a sidewalk, moving as the music compels them.  Slowly Beethoven’s “Fidelio’” sung by Soprano, Kelly Griffen, Tenor, Curtis Bannister, and Bass-Baritone, Derrell Acon all consummate professionals, begins and draws you into a melodic world of gorgeous despair.  These singers are seen throughout, as are the three dancers.  This high level sets the tone for everything that follows.

Brian "HallowDreamz" Henry, dancer; Anaiis Cisco, filmmaker; Jacob Mallin, Director of Photography (New York and Chicago) Matt Iacono, 1st AC/Gaffer (New York and Chicago)

Brian “HallowDreamz” Henry, dancer; Anaiis Cisco, filmmaker; Jacob Mallin, Director of Photography (New York and Chicago) Matt Iacono, 1st AC/Gaffer (New York and Chicago)

“Lonely Dark and Lovely One” is infinitely moving as sung by Curtis Bannister accompanied by Jason Thomas on piano.  With words by Langston Hughes and music by Harry T. Burleigh, Bannister evokes the loneliness of the lyrics with his expressive face and oh so sweet voice. This is a highlight among many.

Dancer Tamrin Goldberg is caught by the sunlight in a brilliant camera shot that turns her into a glowing angel dancing in a park gazebo.  Her movement mirrors the longing in the voice of Soprano, Kelly Griffen singing “Lenore’s Aria,” an ode to her imprisoned husband portrayed by Curtis Bannister.

Heartbeat Opera - "Breathing Free" - Curtis Bannister, Tenor - Photo courtesy of Heartbeat Opera

Heartbeat Opera – “Breathing Free” – Curtis Bannister, Tenor – Photo courtesy of Heartbeat Opera

The juxtaposition of the confined and manacled Bannister singing, “The Prisoners Chorus” from “Fidelio” while dreaming of rescue by “Lenore,” is in stark contrast to a meticulously suited Derrell Acon’s riveting interpretation of “Malcom’s Aria” from the “Life and Times of Malcom X.”   Acon is as fierce and angry, as Bannister is prayerful and longing.  Within this segment is the enlightened movement of Brian “HollowDreamz” Henry and Randy Castillo.  Sinking into a sickening minstrel act, the dance illustrates the emotion of the text.  The entire sequence has the power of a gut punch.

The traditional “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is given all the pathos it deserves by Soprano Griffen.  The dancers, this time including Tenor Curtis Bannister, thoughtfully articulate the melancholy in the music. Tamrin Goldberg shines here.

Bringing music to prison populations throughout the country is a primary focus of Heartbeat Opera.  Yet, I was unprepared for the level of emotion that hit me like a tidal wave as the incarcerated choirs, singing excerpts from “Fidelio,” moved me to tears.   Through singing we see the true and deep humanity within that connects us all.  As one incarcerated singer wrote, “Thank you for allowing them to see me in another light … I almost feel free.”  A more powerful advocate for prison reform is not likely.

“Songs To The Dark Virgin” sung by Derrell Acon is a strong piece with reference to sexual identity.  Words by Langston Hughes and music by Florence Price is beautiful in its starkness.  An amorphous Acon is hard to look away from.

“There is a Balm in Gilead ,” is an inspired choice in the hands of these artists to directly address the unconscionable murders of  black men and women and the Black Lives Matter movement.  All six performers are featured and all bring their artistry to the piece.  However, it is the street art backdrop behind Brian “HollowDreamz” Henry that takes your breath away.  Here are the now familiar names Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many, many more.  Henry, “The Krump King,” uses his unique language to interpret the deeper meaning and heartache behind the words and music of this iconic piece.

Gloriously moving and exquisitely produced, Heartbeat Opera has created theater to last the ages.  Justice and equality are hard to come by but “Breathing Free” allows us to wonder if it’s possible.

To purchase tickets for February 10th & 13th  at 7:00 pm PST at The Broad Stage, click HERE.

To purchase tickets for February 20 – 27 at 7:30 pm PST at UC Davis Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts website, click HERE.

To visit the Heartbeat Opera website, click HERE.

Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: “Breathing Free” – Derrell Acon, bass-baritone; Anaiis Cisco, filmmaker; Kathryn Boyd Batstone, Director of Photography (Los Angeles) Celine Layous 1st AC/Gaffer (Los Angeles)