Finnish theatre troupe brings opera to the deaf

HELSINKI (Reuters) - On a small island off southwest Finland, a new art form has enraptured audiences, bringing opera to those who might seem farthest beyond its reach: the deaf.

Deaf actors Juho Saarinen (L), Kolbrun Volkudottir (C) and Aliisa Lehtonen perform in the world's first sign opera at the Helsinki Deaf Cultural Centre in Helsinki, May 29, 2008. REUTERS/Agnieszka Flak

“This is like a new food you order, you don’t know what it’s going to taste like. You just take it and try it out,” said Juho Saarinen, one of a new order of ‘opera signers’, amplifying the mime characteristic of normal opera with sign language adapted to convey the mood and tone of music.

Producer Marita Barber, who gave signed opera its world premiere on the tiny Aland islands of southwestern Finland, had mixed feelings about the concept when it first arose three years ago. She accepted that, like with ‘hearing’ opera, the taste may for some take a while to acquire.

“I thought this was going to be a success or a flop ... then I saw that other people reacted to it and I really wondered why in the world no one had ever done this before,” she said after a performance in Helsinki.

Signed theatre is performed frequently at venues around the world, and regular sung opera has been interpreted into sign language on the side of the stage, but this summer the 10-year- old Theatre Totti was the first to make a sign-language opera.

After a performance of 19th-century Finnish composer Fredrik Pacius’ “The Hunt of King Charles,” signer Kolbrun Volkudottir said she felt exhausted, but the effort was worth the pain.

“Usually when you go to the theatre, the show itself is the message. In this case, the most important message was to show that deaf people can do opera ... that we can do whatever we want,” she said.


In sign language opera, all performers sign rather than sing, with body language and facial expressions central to the experience. Two musicians provide the score for the hearing.

Just as in Milan’s La Scala and other grand opera houses of the world, there are subtitles for those who cannot understand the signed libretto.

Finding the right performers for the opera, played on small stages and seen by sellout audiences of about 700 so far, was the hardest task.

“We needed a baritone, a soprano -- we needed facial expressions and gestures to get the feeling and the atmosphere across,” Barber said.

Volkudottir, as Leonora, a fisherwoman, signed the soprano role in a graceful and delicate way. “We found the perfect woman,” Barber said, adding that dozens of people from several countries auditioned.

Director Marianne Aro made sure that every singer found their own way of signing. Together with the actors she translated the show into sign language.

Canadian actress Dawn Jani Birley said it was a chance to show the depth of the language she has been using all her life. As she had more than one role in the opera, she transformed her signing style as quickly as she changed costumes.

“Unlike what people think, there are no limits or obstacles to sign language, it’s a really beautiful, three-dimensional thing,” she said.

Some of the actors in the show, 60 percent funded by the Ministry of Culture, had theatre experience, others none.

The audience arrived as unsure of what would unfold as the cast.

“I was afraid it would be a pitiful imitation of opera by the hearing but, oh, how wrong I was!” said Kaisa Alanne, Director at the Finnish Association of the Deaf. “It is as if a new form of art was born.”

She said that though she was deaf, she could feel some sounds vibrate through her body, and could sense the rhythm. Some deaf people can also feel high notes, she said.


Saarinen saw a bright future for opera for the deaf.

“We are an example of something that could be replicated elsewhere ... but we have just found it, we have to develop it.”

The audience agreed. “They created a new form of signing, an opera-type of signing,” said Ojala-Signell, who as a daughter of deaf parents says her native tongue is sign, though she can hear.

“In the opera, the words of the songs were stretched, they had joined different signs together ... and their facial expressions were very rich as well.”

Barber said they chose to emphasize the aesthetic aspects even when it might have made understanding harder.

“There are times when it is difficult to understand the signing, it requires concentration, and gradually the audience will get to understand it better,” she said.

No concrete plans for another production have been made yet, but the group is in talks with Ukraine’s deaf theatre Raduka to produce William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” next year, starring 16 sign-language singers.

Italy has shown interest in the project as well, Barber said. “But we got there first,” she said with a proud smile.

Editing by Ralph Boulton