New York City's Heartbeat Opera Stages Beethoven's Fidelio for the Black Lives Matter Movement

The performance features a pre-recorded Prisoners' Chorus, made up of incarcerated singers from six different prison choirs

(Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)


The New York-based opera company Heartbeat Opera is currently touring its new staging of Beethoven's 1805 opera Fidelio. The production re-imagines the opera's plot in the current day, with the main character morphing into Stan, a Black Lives Matter activist who has been wrongfully imprisoned by a corrupt prison governor.

While Heartbeat's recasting of Fidelio's protagonist has a strong BLM focus, the production as a whole mainly examines the state of the American prison system, particularly the evils of for-profit prisons and the way in which the prison system disproportionately affects Black citizens.

One of the most well-known parts of Fidelio is the Prisoners' Chorus, where the prisoners are very briefly allowed out of jail to enjoy a taste of fresh air. Ethan Heard, the Artistic Director of Heartbeat's production, decided to stage the Prisoners' Chorus with a remote chorus of actual incarcerated Americans. Over 100 prisoners from six different prisons took part in the project, and their work forms the emotional crux of the production.

"I revisited the story and was just so struck by the idea of a wrongfully incarcerated man and this amazing woman, his wife, who infiltrates the prison where she believes he's been kept," said Heard. "It felt like an opera we could really update for a contemporary American version."

"I'm someone who has been impacted by the carceral system," said Associate Artistic Director Derrell Acon. "I have a sibling who was incarcerated for a very long time. And, you know, clearly it affects family dynamics."

"In the 1830s and 40s folks were out on the street screaming 'Viva Verdi!' because opera was such a relevant space for disruption, relevant space for human connection and reflection," Acon added. "For me, it's always OK, so here's the 18th, 19th-century version. What's the 2022 version?"

You can watch a video that discusses the process of recording the Prisoners' Chorus below.