ASL Opera

Real Time Opera, based out of both Oberlin and Contoocook, New Hampshire, is a performing arts company dedicated to the production of new opera. Their new piece, Paradox, is an opera in American Sign Language that seems almost dance-like in its performance. It raises fascinating issues about music and translation. Check it out!


Real Time Opera explodes the boundaries of genre. This is a video of the world premiere performance of ASL opera.

Text: Patrick Graybill
Music, Conception: Larry Polansky
Sign Performer (ASL): Monique Holt
Interpreter: Tim Chamberlain
Video: Douglas Repetto
Design: Don Harvey
Guitar: Larry Polansky
Clarinet: Daniel Goode
Percussion: Randall Chaves-Camacho, Dan King

Filmed by Joe Reboudo, Jen Poland, Evan Lieberman
Edit by Ted Sikora
Executive Producer, Paul Schick

Patrick Graybill, a pioneer and patriarch of the modern ASL poetry movement, wrote Paradox in the 1980s, and performed it on his landmark collection Poetry in Motion on the Sign Media (SMI) DVD. Graybill is an important poet, memoirist, literary translator (from English to ASL) and an influential teacher. Since his early performances with the National Theater of the Deaf (including the revolutionary My Third Eye), Graybill has lived and taught in Rochester, NY, inspiring successive generations of ASL poets and artists.

Paradox is both strangely metaphorical and precisely direct. It is about the great sadness of the absence of basic communication, a subject common in Graybill’s work, as well as in that of other ASL and English Deaf poets of his generation (like Ella Mae Lentz, Clayton Valli, Raymond Luczak, and others). In the first part of the poem, Graybill, or the narrator, describes a performance by a pianist and singer of a song with the line “Where is that man I love?” In the second part, Graybill tells us that his mother signed, but that his father did not. He asks himself, and us, “where is that man I love?”

There are at least two available recordings of this work, both are used in this Pop-Up Opera. The older recording, from the SMI DVD, is transformed in various ways and projected during the performance. The second, a videotaped performance at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College (…), is recreated live by Monique Holt in this opera.

Below is a non-poetic translation based Dennis Cokely’s interpretation performance of Patrick Graybill’s performance at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, April, 6, 2011.
by Larry Polansky, Tim Chamberlain, and Monique Holt

There, a woman, a black woman.
Singing a story.
The piano plays and the keys float away.
“My man, where is that man I love?”
The piano plays on, the black and white keys float away.
“My man, where is that man I love?”

In the hall, a crowd of women and men.
All around, looking at the singer.
She’s singing, wailing at the heavens: “My man, where is that man I love?”
The pianist, playing on the black and white keys, stops.
All is quiet in this black and white room, the applause is long and loud for the black singer who smiles and bows.
She walks toward a man. Her man?
For her, it is simply a song.

For me it’s more than a song.
It touches something deep inside of me.
It’s a story that has always bothered me.
My father, where’s that man I love?
My mother, she could sign, she could hear.
My father, he could hear, but couldn’t sign.
That song continues for me: “My man, where is that man I love?”

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