From the drama at the core of each work, Heartbeat Opera grows vivid theatrical worlds through revelatory adaptations, radical rearrangements, and ingenious design. Through an inquisitive collaborative process with a diverse community of artists, we break down traditional barriers to reimagine opera for artists and audiences of the twenty-first century.
In its first five seasons, Heartbeat Opera has presented eight fully realized productions: Kurtág's Kafka-Fragments, Offenbach's Daphnis & Chloé (new orchestral arrangement and new English translation), Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (new orchestral arrangement and 90 minute adaptation), Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, Bizet's Carmen (new orchestral arrangement, 90 minute adaptation, new English translation of dialogues), Puccini's Butterfly (new orchestral arrangement and 90 minute adaptation), Beethoven’s Fidelio (new orchestral arrangement and new English translation of dialogues), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (new orchestral arrangement), and Stradella’s La Susanna (premier American staging, new English translation, in coproduction with Opera Lafayette).
Heartbeat has also staged the first ever opera show on The High Line, and has mounted a Benefit Drag Extravaganza each year since its founding: Dragus Maximus (at Roulette), All The World's A Drag: Shakespeare in Love ... With Opera and Queens of the Night: Mozart in Space (both at National Sawdust), The Fairy Queen and Miss Handel (both at The Cotton Candy Machine). Finally, we've staged workshop productions of Lucia di Lammermoor and Weill's Seven Deadly Sins; and collaborated with organizations such as Atlas DIY and A BroaderWay to bring opera education to underserved youths in the New York City area.
A Company for Today: Heartbeat Opera
By Thomas May
Visceral, radical, essential: Heartbeat Opera pinpoints the vital pulse that has animated this art form since its origins, seeking to reimagine its fusion of music and drama in boldly revelatory and liberating collaborations. Opera is, at heart, a red-hot physical experience for performers and audiences alike — an artistic medium that articulates and confronts human passions with powerful immediacy. This conviction is what drives Heartbeat’s desire to rejuvenate opera and to transform its recognized masterpieces from venerated relics into freshly challenging encounters.
Founded by Co-Artistic Directors Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard, Heartbeat is led by Proske, Heard, and Co-Music directors Jacob Ashworth and Daniel Schlosberg. All of them share a background as child performers who grew up singing and playing around the world, from Berlin’s Komische Oper to New York City Opera, their paths later converging as students at Yale University’s Schools of Drama and Music.
Through a series of original adaptations of classic works, Heartbeat has earned its reputation as the most vibrant opera company to emerge in New York City in recent years. Since 2016, Heartbeat has been presenting a pair of masterpieces in its annual Spring Festival, one each directed by Proske and Heard: Lucia di Lammermoor and Dido & Aeneas (2016); Carmen and Butterfly (2017); and Don Giovanni and Fidelio (2018).
Heartbeat’s adaptations push opera outside the comfort zone. The starting point is to hone in on the essential drama embedded in both the text and the music. Treating that as their organizing principle, Heartbeat’s directors proceed to rearrange the order of the material, cutting scenes and characters, or recontextualizing them by inventing framing stories that evoke unexpected resonances between the material and contemporary sensibilities. An element integral to these adaptations is the introduction of new instrumental arrangements by Schlosberg, but also, frequently, cutting-edge English translations of lyrics or spoken dialogues.
Heartbeat Opera questions inherited dramatic and musical traditions. The productions Proske has directed of Carmen and Don Giovanni address her interests as a feminist director who critically reconsiders how heroines and male protagonists have been distorted by cultural stereotypes. She locates these iconic works within a contemporary moment that pulses with social and political urgency — which does not necessarily mean setting them in the present. Proske’s adaptation of Lucia di Lammermoor depicts the heroine as an unnamed mental patient listening to a radio broadcast of the opera to escape her own captivity, which sheds revealing light on Lucia’s clichéd “madness” while at the same figuring the art form itself as a tool for salvation.
Heard’s Fidelio sets Beethoven’s rescue story in a contemporary American prison and casts it as the wishful dream of an exasperated wife trying to locate her wrongfully incarcerated husband, a Black Lives Matter activist. Heard and Schlosberg collaborated with more than 100 incarcerated singers in six prison choirs across the U.S. to give a radically new face and voice to the Prisoners’ Chorus (“O Welche Lust”) through an audio/video recording that became part of the live stage performance. “If we look at these familiar pieces or experience them with a different lens,” Heard explains, “sometimes we can unlock tremendous power in the music and the text that gets obscured in a more traditional or heavily decorated version.”
A composer, pianist, and arranger, Daniel Schlosberg is responsible for crafting the original instrumentations Heartbeat uses for its productions. These are not mere reductions for the practical needs of chamber opera performance but represent a deeply considered recomposition of the original score to complement the particular directorial vision. “My instrumentations, in dialogue with the director's concept, feature unusual instruments and unexpected sounds that make the audience hear a familiar piece in a completely new way,” Schlosberg states.
Schlosberg’s chamber score for Lucia, for example, addresses Proske’s provocative question: “How does a mad person hear music?” and thus takes us inside the head of the mental patient. In Carmen, he reinterprets Bizet’s uber-familiar tunes in terms of dance-band imagery, using a jazz-tinged combo. By giving prominence to the solo clarinet in his arrangement of the Don Giovanni score, Schlosberg turns it into an instrumental alter ego of the anti-hero. His Fidelio arrangement uses cello and horn sonorities to establish the sense of yearning as well as majesty inherent in the heroine’s character and her journey.
As trained theater directors, Proske and Heard challenge the singers they work with to instill their performances with the precision and truthfulness of a great stage actor. That means digging into the psychological depths of the music and investing fully in their characters’ physicality. In auditions, the directors look for “Heartbeat singers” -- expert musicians who are hungry to explore their roles with abandon.
Heartbeat draws its instrumentalists from its sister company, Cantata Profana, which was founded by violinist and conductor Jacob Ashworth. “For Don Giovanni,” he explains, “I led from the violin instead of conducting — a thrilling tightrope act. With no conductor in sight, the whole cast and band comes alive as a unified, living, breathing organism and the audience experiences the work pouring forth equally from everyone onstage.” What Cantata Profana brings to Schlosberg’s challenging scores is the electricity and verve of a tight-knit band that knows how to follow the drama, breathe with the singers, and make these new operas thrill to life.
In addition to its adaptations of classics, Heartbeat presents an annual Halloween Drag Extravaganza: populist entertainments that the company refers to as a “gateway drug” for “opera virgins.” These events are usually organized around a theme and/or composer: Miss Handel, Queens of the Night: Mozart in Space, All The World’s a Drag: Shakespeare in Love ... with Opera, and Dragus Maximus: a homersexual opera odyssey. These extravaganzas entail interdisciplinary collaborations with dancers, jazz musicians, fashion designers, Drag Kings and Queens — and audience members who are encouraged to attend in costume. The camp blend of reverence and irreverence — imagine a drag queen lip-syncing to Aretha Franklin’s live recording of “Nessun dorma” or West Side Story’s balcony scene with Tony in the balcony — is experienced as something sublimely beautiful on the one hand, and mischievous and bawdy on the other. Heard points out that underscoring this
intersection between opera and the world of drag is a powerful and enjoyable way to subvert “highbrow” clichés, removing the art from off-putting pedestals and queering it into an object of play and discovery.
Through its radical, dramatic, and musical adaptations, its collaboration with singers and instrumentalists who share an aesthetic of intimate engagement, and its visionary drag events, Heartbeat appeals to audiences across a wide spectrum. Opera aficionados who have a deep history with a beloved work can appreciate the nuances of a particular production’s alterations, while at the same time the company entices complete newcomers through its robust storytelling and vivid theatricality.
Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Musical America. He regularly contributes to the programs of the Lucerne Festival, Metropolitan Opera, and Juilliard School, and his books include Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.