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BWW Review: BREATHING FREE at Home Computer Screens

Contemplating the Value of True Freedom

On the evening of February 10, 2021, The Broad Stage presented Breathing Free, an auditory and visual online love letter to freedom produced by Heartbeat Opera to tell the stories of those who who have experienced various versions of imprisonment.

Heartbeat Opera describes its mission as follows: From the drama at the core of each work, Heartbeat Opera grows vivid theatrical worlds through revelatory adaptations, radical rearrangements, and ingenious design. Through an inquisitive collaborative process with a diverse community of artists, Heartbeat breaks down traditional barriers to reimagine opera for artists and audiences of the twenty-first century.

Heartbeat's program included: the traditional Spirituals "There's a Balm in Gilead," and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," Harry T. Burleigh's "Lovely Dark and Lonely One," Malcolm's aria from X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Florence Price's "Songs to the Dark Virgin," as well as excerpts from Beethoven's opera Fidelio.

The presentation of the traditional Spirituals, "There's a Balm in Gilead" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" was magnificent. The voice of Kelly Griffin, in particular, brought out the pathos of a human being who has to look to life after death as the only possible solution for life on earth's insurmountable problems. Kelly Griffin, Derrell Acon, and Curtis Bannister sang Sean Mayes' arrangement of "There's a Balm in Gilead" and Griffin alone sang the heart-wrenching "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

Less familiar were the selections by Harry T. Burleigh, Anthony Davis, and Florence Price. Burleigh composed "Lovely Dark and Lonely One" to a poem by Langston Hughes that sees a beautiful dark creature banging on a closed gate with bare, brown fists. Curtis Bannister sang it as a sad love song to a beautiful black woman and Jason Thomas accompanied him with lyrical artistry.

Accompanied by the Breathing Free Band, Derrell Acon gave a vivacious rendition of Sean Mayes' arrangement of Malcolm's aria from X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. The opera has music by the Anthony Davis and a libretto by Thulani Davis. Bass-baritone Acon portrayed Antron in the world-premiere of Anthony Davis' Pulitzer-Prize winning The Central Park Five at Long Beach Opera. Acon and Thomas also gave a fascinating rendition of Florence Price's "Songs to the Dark Virgin," another captivating setting of Langston Hughes poetry.

We heard four excerpts from Beethoven's Fidelio arranged by Daniel Schlosberg and accompanied by Heartbeat Opera's Fidelio Band. The Chorus from the Oakdale Community Choir in Iowa, the Kuji Men's Chorus of the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio, the Hope through Harmony Women's Choir in Ohio, the Ubuntu Men's Chorus of the London Correctional Institution in Ohio, the Voices of Hope from the Shakopee Minnesota Correctional Facility, and volunteers all contributed to the Fidelio Prisoners' Chorus, "O welche Lust" ("Oh What Happiness"). Their sound was prodigious and thought-provoking as they described the beauty of light and air that non-prisoners take for granted on a daily basis.

The soloists sang the opera's major arias. Curtis Bannister sang Stan's (Florestan's) aria "Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!" ("What Darkness Here") with dark dramatic tones that underscored the terrors of his circumstances. Kelly Griffin sang Leah's (Leonore's) aria "Abscheulicher!" ("Monster") with great attention to the words and very little of the coloratura sometimes heard at the aria's finale.

For an operatic finale, Curtis Bannister, Kelly Griffin, and Derrell Acon sang the Act II trio for tenor, soprano, and bass, "Euch werde Lohn" (You will be Rewarded"), the climactic ensemble that results in Stan's (Florestan's) salvation drawing the audience in to the drama of the prisoner's release from captivity.

Dancers Randy Castillo, Tamrin Goldberg, and Brian HallowDreamz Henry interpolated their modern dance interpretations of many of the selections in places that provided interesting scenic backgrounds. One of the backgrounds used was a familiar park from my childhood in New York City. Familiar scenes combined with opera and dance may help bring new fans to both arts.

Director Ethan Heard, Filmmaker Anaiis Cisco, Creative Producer Ras Dia, Music Directors Daniel Schlosberg and Jacob Ashworth, Movement Director Emma Jaster, along with arrangers Daniel Schlosberg and Sean Mayes have given their audience a fine film. I hope they will stream it online for a reasonable period of time that will allow an international audience to watch it at leisure. The Broad Stage, which provided support for the creation of this work, hopes to welcome Heartbeat Opera in 2022.

Photo of Derrell Acon by Filmmaker Anaiis Cisco.

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From This Author Maria Nockin