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Disability Creativity in Opera

Be Careful What You Say, It Might Come True Someday

Back in 2015 when opera folk gathered unmasked in small rooms to discuss their unique and exquisite art form, there was an auspicious meeting at the National Opera Center of a musicologist in a wheelchair and a non-disabled librettist. The man, who has Cerebral Palsy, loved opera from a very early age. The woman, non-disabled, grew up in theatre and had recently responded to the call to write librettos. Both were exploring how to break into the industry. She was new to opera and he, though a fixture at nearly every opening night of any opera being performed around New York City, never thought he could pursue a job in opera because of his limited mobility. No one considered him a viable candidate until he met her. Marianna’s first question to Greg was, “What do you want to do in opera?” and Greg’s immediate response was “I want to run an opera company.” “Cool!” Marianna said, and we became friends.

A light skinned woman with long silver hair and a black dress stands proudly with a light skinned man in a blue shirt, sitting in a wheelchair. His arms are to one side in a gesture of a hug while she has her arm over him and his chair, leaning in. They are both smiling and proud about the opera they have just produced and are about to present to the public.

Opera Praktikos, Inc. (OPrak) co-founders Marianna Mott Newirth and Gregory Moomjy at the Opera Conference in Minneapolis, 2022. Photo by Scott Newirth.

Fast forward to 2022: after seven-years’ hard work, a pinch of luck, and a host of amazing people, we produced Handel’s Orlando with Opera Essentia in a community garden on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, launching Opera Praktikos, Inc. (OPrak), New York City’s first disability-affirmative opera company. OPrak’s mission is to make opera accessible for audiences and performers. We bring artists with disabilities and artists without disabilities together to make interabled opera. OPrak’s vision is to create space for people to express themselves through words and music. This means removing physical barriers of entry as well as economic barriers. We’ve seen firsthand that when opera is made accessible to the disabled community, opera is made accessible to everyone, even those who never thought about opera before.

We were on the path with OPrak but did not have any word for what we were doing. Then, Morgan Skolnik ignited our spark for this essay with their 20 October 2022 HowlRound essay “Moving from Disability Visibility to Disability Artistry.” Our thinking here builds upon Morgan’s powerful description of what they call disability artistry, which is “work that is informed, from the beginning and down to its core, by some aspect of the disability experience. This doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be 'about' disability, but rather it can embrace a disability aesthetic or feature complicated characters whose lives include disability.” We thank them for their trailblazing work.

We’ve seen firsthand that when opera is made accessible to the disabled community, opera is made accessible to everyone, even those who never thought about opera before.

We approach disability artistry from an organizational perspective by asking the questions, “Who are we as an opera company to champion disability creativity? What might be missed if we just do business as usual? Where are the artists with disabilities in opera? How do we reach them and how do they reach us? When does static thinking need disruption?” (The answer to the last one is easy—all the time! Because let’s face it, human nature has us always trying to get back to old ways of being.) Here we find our quest to establish new ways of being in the opera field.

Defining Disability Creativity

In any field, in order to shift predominant ways of thinking, is it first necessary to broaden preconceived ideas about certain words. To unpack this concept further, we propose working definitions that we hope others will take and build upon for themselves.

  • Disability: The Oxford Dictionary defines disability “as a condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” Most think something’s wrong with the word “disabled.” We embrace it. There is also a turn toward the social model of disability which contradicts the reliance on disabilities’ limitations as a definition. We use our definition purposefully, because we believe limitations are not impediments. Artists work within their limitations and limits often cause creativity to flourish. A disability can be redefined as a powerful structure for creativity.
  • Creativity: the use of original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.
    We take creativity one step further into defining it as space-making, wherein every artist has the capacity to use their original ideas as part of a whole artistic work. This circles back to the definition of disability and limitations as a useful creative structure.
  • Artistry: creative skill or ability of an individual.
    This is the very personal world of an individual having agency to source their creative art from their unique lived experience.
  • Interabled: An equal relationship existing between a disabled person and one who is not disabled.

We use the term disability creativity as an expression of our interabled work where disability artistry flourishes. The myth of perfection has done a great deal of harm to opera, both in its public perception as well as its methods of performance. At OPrak we chip away at this myth by creating spaces where everyone, both spectators and performers alike, can use their unique strengths to create a space for dialogue through music and storytelling. To put it bluntly, our motto is “don’t be an asshole, let people be who they are, and trust the process.”

A wide shot of a verdant outdoor stage at Campos Community Garden as the setting for a baroque opera - the performers are taking their bows at the end surrounded by flowers and lush bushes that frame a wooden stage, upon which stands a baroque string orchestra.

The cast of OPrak’s production of Orlando by George Fideric Handel at Campos Community Garden. Photo by Kayabelle Glass.

Accessibility as an Expression of Disability Creativity

Despite persistent barriers, disability access to the performing arts is finally becoming part of the conversation. However, we have a long way to go. In 2019, Ali Stroker made headlines for being the first wheelchair user to win a Tony Award. Unfortunately, her Tony win became a point of controversy when it became known that she had to wait backstage, not knowing if she would win because Radio City did not build a ramp giving access to the stage from the audience. Then, she could not celebrate with her peers on stage when Oklahoma! won Best Revival of a Musical because she had no access to the stage again from the audience. This was not only a barrier to physical access but a social barrier as well. Creating spaces that allow people with disabilities to perform and enjoy performances can start with simple changes to physical space.

By thinking with disability creativity, we become open to thinking differently about space. When we evaluate a physical space for a performance for OPrak, we now begin by asking how this space is accessible and how people with disabilities inhabit it. Our task is to be intentional about accessibility. For example, OPrak’s debut production was a distillation of Handel’s Orlando in Campos Community Garden where we offered flexible seating and an accessible portable restroom. Traditional theatrical spaces have limited wheelchair seating for audiences. What’s there is fixed and immovable, plus access to bathrooms is tenuous at best. Campos Community Garden had some traditional markers of a performance space (i.e. an elevated stage), but our production was immersive. The singers could walk through the audience handing out flowers, personally engaging with them. This allowed people with disabilities direct access to our performance.

A large group of people are seated in front of a brick wall, facing the camera.

The audience for OPrak’s production of Orlando at Campos Community Garden. Photo by Marianna Mott Newirth.

Opera in traditional theatres can also be cost-prohibitive. Our performances were free thanks to the support of our generous patron, Marty Jeiven. Major arts organizations offer discounts like rush tickets or student tickets, available the day of a performance. They sell out quickly which means potential buyers have to plan their whole day around getting them. This is not something people with disabilities can easily do. At Orlando, people could wander into the garden off the street and listen to opera. They had the option to come and go with no judgment. Our work with Orlando demonstrates some ways we can make opera accessible to all audiences. This challenges the normative best business practices of performing arts organizations.

Making opera accessible and fostering disability creativity starts with the audience experience. Every opera professional’s story about their entry point into the field starts with the first opera they ever attended. Being a professional in this industry begins with being an audience member. We spoke to DeafBlind advocate and opera lover Marc Safman about his experience watching Orlando, and he shared the following:

I have low vision and hearing; the world is just pretty blurry. I’m happier with smaller venues [like Campos Community Garden] because the further back I sit [at an opera house] the less well I hear… I would love to be able to use my cellphone camera [during performances], which zooms in perfectly. I have NuEyes low vision goggles.

Disability creativity includes building audience awareness of the many ways people can experience and benefit from the performing arts.

Marc was right in the middle of the action during our production, so he did not need to use NuEyes as much as he would inside a large opera house. Using one’s cell phone during a performance is deeply frowned upon by music professionals and regarded by many audiences as an uncouth distraction. This exemplifies the ableist assumption that the offender is not focusing on the performance. For a DeafBlind person like Marc, full engagement in a performance involves using his cell phone. Opportunities to engage opera in new and extraordinary ways also involve wearable technology such as Marc’s NuEyes or the Vibrotactile vests produced by Music:Not Impossible. Assistive technology applications allow all people to experience a musical work in a completely different way. One can be transported deeply into the music with these haptic vests on!

A new practice that more traditional venues and performance companies can do is to post a sign in the lobby explaining that some audience members will be using assistive technology during the performance. This can help to transform a misunderstanding into a moment of inclusivity. House Managers should be advised to upgrade their curtain speech to say, “Please silence your cell phones and understand that our visually impaired audience members will be using their cell phones to enjoy the performance with Assistive Technology.” Disability creativity includes building audience awareness of the many ways people can experience and benefit from the performing arts.

A light skinned woman wearing a dark tank-top and black jeans stands facing a dark skinned man wearing a maroon baseball cap, a light colored short sleeved shirt and shorts. Both have huge grins on their faces as they show off the Vibravests they're wearing for a performance of Gershin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' at an outdoor venue in Lincoln Center. A perfect moment of joy as they feel the music through their tactile vests.

Marianna Mott Newirth and Marc Safman wearing Vibratech vests for the performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center, Summer 2022. Photo by Dailin Mercedes.

For the better part of a century, opera has suffered from its public perception as an archaic art form. Those of us who love it know this isn’t the case. At its best, opera can be a powerful tool of emotional communication leading to personal insight. There is much work to be done to present operas that allow audiences to see themselves in the stories. This includes stories from the disability community. At OPrak, we have started doing this work. The results have already shown that when we put in the effort to make opera accessible, everyone benefits. Disability creativity is about providing a space for artists with disabilities and artists without disabilities to work together for an audience with and without disabilities. The idea is that disability is actually an access point to creative discovery and truth telling. In Italian, opera translates to “work” and the work being done on stage, backstage, and front-of-house must be an honest reflection of our collective experiences.

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Curious to know who out there in HowlRoundville has experienced the Vibratech vests from Music: Not Impossible? What were you left with after the performance? I know for sure that I will NEVER experience Rhapsody in Blue the same way ever again. I can still feel the piano going up my arm across my back and down into my right leg!