Every year, Lawrence University presents a fully staged
opera. This year’s mainstage opera was Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” an emotional
production based around the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass. Director of Opera
Studies and Associate Professor of Music Copeland Woodruff elevated “Mass” to a
new level by incorporating American Sign Language (ASL) Pidgen Sign Language
(PSE) into the piece. As a result of these additions, the opera spoke—and
signed—volumes about inclusion, community and listening to one another.
The opera featured a cast of talented Lawrentians, with
seniors Aria Minasian and Erik Nordstrom sharing the lead role of the
Celebrant. In addition to Lawrence students, professional deaf actor Robert
Schleifer and local deaf interpreter Kristine Orkin participated in the opera.
Highlights of the performance included songs like senior Allie Horton’s
masterful solo “World Without End,” a children’s choir comprised of local
elementary and middle school students and an innovative set design. The
Stansbury Theater stage was transformed into a post-apocalyptic ruin with
spooky lighting, crumbling buildings and a mesh screen that separated scenes of
past memories from the present. The costumes were designed to feel
post-apocalyptic as well, from the eerie one-piece jumpsuits and bald caps worn
by the chorus to the Celebrant’s ragged apparel.
Bernstein’s original storyline was intensified by the use
of ASL. The struggle to communicate was heart-wrenchingly obvious between the
hearing Celebrant and the deaf Congregant. Both parties were striving to be
understood without trying to understand where the other person was coming from.
However, some unity was found in the Street Singers, who simultaneously sung
Following the performance, Schleifer and the rest of the
cast received a standing ovation from audience members, but there was no clapping
to be heard. Instead, the audience used the deaf sign of applause, which
involves holding both hands above the head and twisting them back and forth.