Dress rehearsal for "Mass."
Bernstein's "Mass" is presented at Lawrence University.

Lawrence Opera Theatre’s presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” runs from Thursday through Sunday at Stansbury Theater. Here’s what you need to know before you go. Tickets are available via the Lawrence Box Office

Dress rehearsal for "Mass."
Dress rehearsal of "Mass."

A Lawrence University production of Leonard Bernstein’s highly acclaimed “Mass” will be staged this week with a significant twist.

The much-anticipated production by Lawrence’s Opera Theatre Ensemble, led by Copeland Woodruff, the award-winning Director of Opera Studies and Associate Professor of Music at Lawrence, will incorporate a Deaf character played by professional Deaf actor Robert Schleifer.

“My inspiration was two-fold — the obvious metaphor of our current society, where people have a difficult time listening to one another, and the inclusion of community members who might not necessarily attend an opera,” Woodruff said.

American Sign Language (ASL) and Pidgin Signed English (PSE) will be used throughout the production. Twenty-one members of the student ensemble have spent weeks learning to communicate in sign language.

There’s a lot to unpack with this production, opening Thursday (Feb. 14) and running through Sunday (Feb. 17) at Lawrence’s Stansbury Theater.

Makeup and costume work is done in advance of a dress rehearsal for "Mass."
Actors prepare for Tuesday’s dress rehearsal of “Mass.”

First, there’s the staging of a production as wide-ranging as “Mass,” which was both acclaimed and controversial when it debuted in 1971 and is being presented now as part of the world-wide celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday.

Woodruff and his ensemble are collaborating with members of two local children’s choirs to reimagine Mass, structured like a Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass but mixing sacred and secular texts and music. The celebrant leads the ceremony, and the Deaf character is the voice of the congregation challenging the celebrant. They argue and search for answers to universal questions together—their diversity highlighted by an eclectic blend of blues, rock, gospel, folk, Broadway, jazz, hymnal, Middle Eastern dance and orchestral music. Ultimately, they affirm the value of faith and hope for peace.

“Distinctive productions like Mass provide students with a rich educational opportunity to practice being a singer-actor, hone full-bodied communication skills, as well as develop appreciation and respect for the experience of others,” Woodruff said. “We hope that students will learn that the arts can be a powerful vehicle for personal and societal awareness and change.”

That speaks to the addition of Schleifer’s Deaf character, a statement on the difficulties we have in communicating when ideological differences come between us, be it political, religious or otherwise. It’s also a nod to the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities and the daily struggles they endure.

“The use of ASL and PSE underscores the struggle to communicate, particularly between Deaf and hearing communications and within the Deaf community itself,” Woodruff said.

Community connections

Woodruff has a track record of partnering with community groups to examine socially relevant issues through opera. Members of the production team hope Mass will reach more than 2,000 people in the Fox Valley, many of them from the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.

“It is rare — even at the national level — for a signed opera to be produced and performed,” Woodruff said. “The majority of our area’s theater-going public would not ordinarily experience this type of performance. Mass will open dialogues about faith and inclusion to our community.”

Besides Schleifer, Kristine Orkin, a local interpreter for the Deaf, and two professional vocal/style specialists are participating in the production. Schleifer, along with Lawrence student performers, will sign most of the opera’s lyrics in real-time during the performance. Deaf audience members also will be able to read supertitles.

Lawrence student Erik Nordstrum, who shares the main role of the celebrant with Aria Minasian, said he has learned a lot about himself through his work on the production.

“Through working on this piece, I realized that I have not been listening to other people, or to myself, as intently or as consistently as I would like to, and that so many human failures stem from a failure to communicate,” he said.

Minasian, meanwhile, has taken lessons from members of the Deaf community she’s interacted with in the lead-up to the production.

“Learning about the Deaf community and applying it to the show has been awesome,” she said. “I’ve also found challenges with figuring out how to be a female celebrant in a Roman Catholic church setting. This show has a lot to unpack and many different ways it can be presented and interpreted, leaving a lot to the performers and production team.”

Religious conversations

Congregants from four Fox Cities faith communities have used this production of Mass as a vehicle to talk about how we communicate – or more likely, don’t communicate – when it comes to our differences.

“The Mass is this touchpoint for us,” said Linda Morgan-Clement, the Julie Esch Hurvis Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life at Lawrence.

Morgan-Clement’s office has been collaborating with Woodruff to bring together public conversations about Mass. She led a discussion at First Congregational United Church of Christ that included participants from that congregation as well as Memorial Presbyterian Church, First English Lutheran Church and the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. It was a chance to talk about our often jumbled and conflicting faith journeys and the barriers that keep us from communicating effectively. The arts — and in this case, Bernstein’s Mass — can be used to engage people in conversations they might not otherwise have.

“It gives people a touchpoint around which to come together,” Morgan-Clement said. “It’s not just let’s get together and talk about the ways we don’t talk.”

This production provides a plethora of jumping off points in that conversation.

There’s the modern music, the discord, the journey of doubt playing out on stage, all crashing into the deep traditions of a Catholic mass. It provides an avenue for discussion of our differences and our similarities.

“So, it opens up this moment in today’s time for people to talk about the ways in which we … are still being human together, sharing this earth, a lot of commonality in our emotional framework and the ways we operate,” Morgan-Clement said. “And in what ways do the symbols and the language get in our way of actually hearing each other?”

‘Touches my soul’

For Schleifer, the blending of opera with sign language is powerful and moving.

 “My love of opera is longstanding, its visual language fascinating — depicted through conductor wand gyrations, the energetic dance of bodies fused with instruments in orchestral rhythms, singers’ storytelling through facial expression and movement and breathing strength — the power I see touches my soul,” he said.

Bernstein’s Mass – full title is Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers — debuted in 1971 after the famed composer was asked by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to compose a piece for the 1971 inauguration of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Seeing it unfold on an LU stage come Thursday night with sign language being incorporated throughout will be an emotional moment for Schleifer.

“Bernstein’s Mass project has been both a challenging and awesome experience,” he said, “from the sound of the music itself and the abstract concepts portrayed through tone and inflection, which I cannot hear, relying on facial and body cues, figuring how to match American Sign Language with operatic language, to the awesome collaboration with Copeland and Kris, who helped me understand the complexities of poetic language, appreciate the culture of opera, and together watch the beautiful magic unfold.”

On stage

What: Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 14 through Saturday, Feb. 16; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17

Where: Stansbury Theater, Lawrence University, Appleton

Cost: $15 ($8 for seniors and non-LU students; free for LU students and staff)

Contact: 920-832-6749,  boxoffice@lawrence.edu, or buy online