Caitlin McKechney
"Powerhouse mezzo" (Albert Williams, The Chicago Reader) Caitlin McKechney is quickly making a name for herself as a dynamic singing actress. Caitlin's 2017 season proved ... more
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The Heartbeat of Opera

NYC-based Mezzo-soprano Caitlin McKechney takes a look at another innovative NYC "indie opera" company, Heartbeat Opera.

To comment on the necessity of innovation of opera in the US in this day in age is like saying that a decaying tooth needs a filling (obviously), humans need air to survive (duh) or that the Cubs are the best team in baseball (yes, the author of this article is a Chicago native, but this is still an incontrovertible truth!). As audiences age and ticket sales dwindle, opera companies are looking for the key to connecting to the next generation. This necessity is being confronted by companies all over the country, be they established mainstays (Lyric Opera of Chicago has paired with Second City for comic performances and has added traditional musical theater to its repertoire) or innovative upstart companies like Brooklyn’s Loft Opera or — another innovator in the NYC opera scene —Heartbeat Opera.

It is no surprise that the “indie opera” scene began to take off at the time when New York City Opera closed its doors. Even allowing for the “Renaissance” of NYCO, a need for a new approach to opera in New York City was revealed and the floodgates opened. Heartbeat is just one of many exciting groups on the scene, but certainly one of the most prolific.

One of Heartbeat's distinctive features is its approach to repertoire and arrangement — while many companies focus on lesser-known pieces, or innovate in their production value and performance venues, Heartbeat Opera tackles standard repertoire and finds opportunities for innovation in instrumentation and musical arrangements. And they all share one major success, one that seems to elude some more established companies: the ability to attract a younger, hipper crowd to opera.

Ethan Heard, Co-Artistic Director, states Heartbeat’s mission as such: “From the drama at the core of each opera, we grow vivid theatrical worlds through revelatory adaptations, radical rearrangements, and ingenious visual design. Through an inquisitive collaborative process with a diverse community of artists, Heartbeat breaks down traditional barriers and reimagines opera for artists and audiences of the twenty-first century.”

Started by Ethan and his Co-Artistic Director Louisa Proske, who both started their performance careers in children’s opera choruses and ended up at the Yale School of Drama, take the constraints of opera on a limited budget and use it to their advantage: a fantastic reinvention of Carmen’s score lends itself to a jazzier, more contemporary sound that matches their production. Butterfly’s score itself is inverted, putting Act II before Act I, creating a compelling dramatic narrative, and leaving opera purists in a state of shock and indignation.

Their productions sometimes meet mixed reviews, but the audiences seem to be riveted. For these young, “indie” opera companies, to attempt to put together a full orchestra for their productions would not only be prohibitively expensive but also redundant — in New York City, you have the Metropolitan Opera to preserve these operas in their original form. Heartbeat has taken this imposed hierarchy and found a niche for themselves that is fueling their experimentation. And this experimentation is paying off in full houses and younger crowds, both of which often allude to larger, more established companies.

Soprano Jessica Sandidge, who played Micaela in their recent production of Carmen, said of her experience singing with Heartbeat, “I loved working with Louisa [Proske, stage director]. She’s an actor herself and a performer. She really got me to dig in more to the character. Because, Micaela can be a bit flat, one-dimensional… [She] forced me to actually show up.… It was harder [than singing with other companies] because I couldn’t just show up and sing. Every time we did the scene, I had to really be present. I didn’t think of it as just singing opera. I mean, I’ve been singing this aria for 15 years.… ‘Why is she singing this, and why do we want to hear it again?’ It’s beautiful, but it has to be real.”

Similar to Peter Brook’s 1983 adaptation La Tragédie de Carmen, Heartbeat’s adaptation reorders some of the music, gets rid of many secondary characters and adds an actor or two who aren’t in the original opera and who don’t sing. And like the Tragédie adaptation, it helps the audience to look at a story we know so well in a new way… or perhaps make it just a little more accessible for the new audiences being introduced to opera for the first time.

Ethan Heard says of Heatbeat’s future aspirations: “We want to share our work with more people. We plan to do more performances in NYC and start touring. We hope opera companies/festivals around the world will stage Heartbeat adaptations. We want to continue turning more young people on to this beloved art form.”

We hope so too, Heartbeat. We hope so too.

Caitlin McKechney
"Powerhouse mezzo" (Albert Williams, The Chicago Reader) Caitlin McKechney is quickly making a name for herself as a dynamic singing actress. Caitlin's 2017 season proved ... more