Sign Language Interpreted Hansel & Gretl by Opera North – a review 

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to review a sign language interpreted performance of Hansel and Gretl. And not any old Hansel and Gretl show. Oh no. It was an opera. 

I admit when I first realised it was an opera I wasn’t very enthusiastic. I have never been to the opera. I’m a musical, dancing singing to Grease kind of girl! Attending an opera in my spare leisure time is just not something that ever struck me as enjoyable. 

Even when I told friends I was attending an opera they either laughed or attempted to imitate an impressive “la la la LAAAAA”  

But I went with an open mind and boy am I glad I did. Performed by Opera North at the beautiful Theatre Royal in Nottingham, the show told the story of Hansel & Gretl in a way that I had never seen. 

Set in modern day time, the actors playing Hansel & Gretl used a camera throughout the show to project live images and create visually stunning backgrounds, almost as though they were lost in a dangerous online world and their parents nowhere to be seen. 

The production very cleverly used videos and special effects to engage our attention despite the set not changing throughout. For literary fans this retelling of such a traditional tale was surprisingly moving, thought provoking and very current. 

And the only reason I know all of that is because the show was accessible. Not only did the production have two screens of captions but it was also sign language interpreted by Paul Whittaker who is now in his 25th year of working in theatre. 

Speaking to Paul before the show it became apparent that sign interpreted opera is not very popular at all. Why? 

“Well,” says Paul. “It’s harder to do due to the emotions being more sustained throughout. There are many complex musical changes but the words don’t develop visually very quickly.” 

I was also intrigued how Paul manages to interpret such a production especially when he is also profoundly deaf. He explained,

“I memorise everything. The lyrics, the dialogue. I went to rehearsals and they were brilliantly helpful. I watched the show twice and also had a DVD of the production which I could watch and revise at home. I practice becoming the characters and tell the story at the exact same time as its happening on stage.” 

It all sounded very impressive and I was eager to watch the show. But I still had my doubts. Can deaf people truly appreciate and access the opera when it’s unique selling point is actually just the voice? And – more importantly – can opera be made accessible? 

I was sat in the dress circle with Paul in a private box almost opposite me with an easy view of the orchestra below. 

One of the caption screens was in the same box as Paul so it was easy to glance over at them too. And as soon as the orchestra prelude faded and the show began, the BSL began in an energetic, charismatic flurry. 

It relentlessly matched verse after verse in exact timing, with Paul seamlessly shifting from character to character as the actors sang. Yet after a while, if I’m perfectly honest, my signing watching eyes got a bit tired. You see the thing I didn’t realise with opera was that they sing everything. Literally everything. In the same type of rhythm. So the signing is pretty much constant, non stop – no eye break! 

And here’s the other thing, if it wasn’t for the soprano voices ringing in my hearing aid I’m not sure I would have known otherwise that this was an operatic production. It seems the uniqueness of the opera is very difficult to convey in sign. 

Whilst there is such a thing as a vibrato operatic voice, I have not seen operatic style of signing. So how could a deaf audience appreciate the uniqueness of the opera if it’s lyrics look the same as any other show? Could this be why the production isn’t attracting a lot of deaf attendees? 

And then there’s the style of music to consider – classical. Depending on your level of hearing and exposure to music as well as personal taste, classical may not be the easiest music to follow. I brought my mother in law to the show (also profoundly deaf) and whilst I thought being able to watch the orchestra was enchanting, she said the 6 minute prelude was the “longest six minutes” of her life. 

It’s not an overpowering style of music, there’s no thumping bass you can nod along to or feel pounding on your chest. There’s no glitzy costume changes or a huge variety of sets.

Opera seems to simply (but stunningly) be about the stage, the orchestra and the voice. And while I feel our interpreter was incredibly skilled, I didn’t think it enhanced my opera experience as I relied mostly on the captions and what sound I could hear through my hearing aids. 

I loved the gentleness of the violin strings, the drama of the drums, the sways of the cello. Even the conductors movements were mesmerising. I couldn’t hear everything but visually I could see the rhythms and that was exciting for me. 

I could pick up the rhythmic flow of each stanza that was sung all in 4’s or 8’s but with BSL having a structure of its own it didn’t follow the rhythm that the hearing audience heard. So the musical delights, the rhymes and accentuated beats that are enjoyable to listen to were lost when translated into BSL. 

Lyrically, the words in the show are constant, which requires intense concentration to understand. It would have been better, too, if the interpreter was closer to the stage so one could glance at the actors on stage without missing huge segments of the translation. 

The translation was aesthetically very beautiful. Especially during the infamous angelic song that the children sing. But, truth be told, without the captions a lot of content would have been lost to me. The fast pace, continuous flow of lyrics and abstract words made this viewing more hard work than perhaps other shows that are attracting higher numbers of BSL users. 

The venue themselves had wondered why their opera shows were receiving low bookings from BSL users. And I had also pondered the question can opera be truly enjoyed by the deaf community? 

Summing up, I feel it really depends on your level of deafness and your exposure to and personal taste in music. I switched off my hearing aid halfway though the performance and I realised that without any sound at all it was hard for the production to keep my attention throughout.  

So can deaf people enjoy the opera? Oh yes. But whether they’d want to watch it signed straight for two hours is an entirely different matter. If a hearing  audience is paying to listen to a special kind of voice, I want to see a unique kind of signing. Something as dramatic and explosive as the powerhouses on stage. Sign opera. Not quite there yet, but never say never 😉  

You can see details of all the SLIP and captioned shows at the Royal concert hall by viewing their access page online.  

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