‘Breathing Free’ features Black artistic voices spotlighting justice and equity

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Bass-baritone Derrell Acon celebrates the feeling of Breathing Free. (Kathryn Boyd Batstone)

Black History Month was created to focus attention on the contributions of African Americans to the United States. It honors all Black people from all periods of U.S. history, from the enslaved people first brought over from Africa in the early 17th century to African Americans living in the United States today. It is celebrated in February in the United States and Canada, while in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom it is observed in October.

Heartbeat Opera, the radical indie opera company “leading the charge in online opera” (Parterre) with “groundbreaking” virtual content (Operawire) that is “hacking the corporate contours of Zoom into a postmodern proscenium” (Washington Post), is presenting the West Coast Premiere of Breathing Free, an ambitious filmed song cycle dedicated to the celebration of Black artistic voices, presented by The Broad Stage online Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.  

For tickets and information visit thebroadstage.org. 

Breathing Free builds on Heartbeat’s 2018 collaboration with 100 incarcerated singers in six prison choirs as part of a contemporary Fidelio told through the lens of Black Lives Matter. Created in a time of George Floyd’s murder, a pandemic which is ravaging our prison population, and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Heartbeat has curated a song cycle brought to life in vivid music videos, mingling excerpts from Fidelio with songs by Black composers and lyricists, which together manifest a dream of justice and equity.

This 45-minute “visual album” features three singers, three dancers, eight instrumentalists and a robust creative production team. Rehearsed remotely on Zoom, the cast has recorded their individual audio tracks at home, with the music team then layering the tracks together. Heartbeat’s filmmaker Anaiis Cisco collaborated with cinematographers to film the performers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

The presentation will be livestreamed along with live opening remarks and post-screening panel discussions with artists and activists highlighting the timely themes surfaced in Breathing Free. Audience Q&A will follow the post-screening panel. Formerly incarcerated singer Michael Powell, who collaborated on Heartbeat’s 2018 Fidelio, has agreed to take part in the February 10 panel called Voices of Incarceration during which artists will share about their creative and inspiring work with prison populations. The February 13 panel is Proposition 17 & Restoring Rights; a discussion and education about California’s recently passed Proposition 17 restoring voter rights to post parolees in the state.

From a letter to Heartbeat Opera from an incarcerated singer from the East Hill Singers at Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas: “This project has affected me more and more as time has passed. From the process of learning the music week to week and growing in confidence, misplaced or not, to recording the song live in our chapel, gradually the gravity of what I was doing settled in. Having been in prison for over 20 years, I have not had a place in the free world, and this has been an opportunity for me to share something truly positive with my friends and family. Thank you for allowing them to see me in another light…I almost feel free.”

From Heartbeat Opera Co-Artistic Director Ethan Heard: “In its first six seasons, Heartbeat Opera has dedicated itself to reinterpreting ‘the classics’ to make them more accessible and relevant to today’s audiences. Breathing Free is about celebrating the voices of Black artists onstage and behind the scenes. We have assembled a wonderful team of 30 collaborators, the majority of whom are Black, and we are connecting with dozens of students, primarily Black, brown, and people of color. Every day in rehearsal, the words and music of the songs in Breathing Free remind us of our problems and our purpose.”

While there are many ways to artistically celebrate Black History Month this February, I hope you will make plans to tune in to this groundbreaking West Coast premiere production by Heartbeat Opera and The Broad Stage.