“As someone who is fluent in sign language and has done this for such a long time, just seeing people sign onstage isn’t particularly thrilling now,” Lev says. “It needs to be thrilling for some other reason.”
One such reason arose in 2018, when Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Brenda Patterson of the boundary-pushing Victory Hall Opera in Charlottesville pitched Lev on a production of Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” but with deaf performers.
The concept came about after Gordon-Stewart, Victory Hall’s artistic director, and Patterson, the music director, read Andrew Solomon’s 2012 nonfiction book “Far From the Tree,” about how families accommodate children with disabilities. The book mentioned ASL’s roots in French Sign Language, dating to the deaf community of 18th-century Paris. They then drew parallels to “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which follows a convent of Carmelite nuns pressured to renounce their vocation during the French Revolution.
“Within the deaf community, there are a lot of similar issues that come up,” Gordon-Stewart says. “There’s a pressure to assimilate with hearing culture, for example, which is intensely political. These things worked together for us into the idea of a production of ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’ that would be set in a deaf convent.”
Victory Hall Opera will take a step toward making the production a reality with a workshop Feb. 27 at Old Cabell Hall, as the opening event of the University of Virginia’s Disability Studies Symposium. Lev will direct the workshop, titled “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” which will feature three sopranos singing alongside three deaf actors.
Lev won’t pin down a vision until the cast and crew get in the rehearsal room and notes that the workshop could feature multiple takes on the same scenes. After performing about an hour of excerpts from “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” Lev and the cast will participate in an audience Q&A.
“There’s something about the challenge of figuring out how to do this and why to do this each time that is just more exciting to me than putting on yet another version of a play that’s been put on several times,” says Lev, who will guide the performers through three days of rehearsal before the workshop. “I like that we have a whole new problem now. We have sign language. We have deaf actors. We have hearing actors who don’t know sign language. I love the puzzle.”
Gordon-Stewart is one of the singers, along with Victory Hall troupe member Rachelle Durkin and guest Jennifer Zetlan. The deaf performers are Jackie Roth, Amber Zion and Sandra Mae Frank, who in 2015 played the lead role of Wendla in Deaf West Theatre’s Tony-nominated revival of “Spring Awakening” on Broadway.