So here I am at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – a premier venue for classical music events. What am I, of all people, doing here? I’m normally hanging out with some puppets somewhere. Well, I am intrigued. The Paradis Files is the tale of Maria Theresia von Paradis, an outstanding 18th century pianist, who also happened to be blind. Sounds like a great story! Furthermore, this production is by Graeae Theatre Company, renowned for showcasing the talents of deaf and disabled creatives. How is this chamber opera going to work out then?
I needn’t have worried about not fitting in or understanding, because access and integration is the foundation of the entire evening. On entering, there’s a touch table offering fabric samples to help describe the costumes, whilst the programme and synopsis are available in multiple formats, including audio and large print. Over the stage is a huge screen on which surtitles are projected. There are two BSL performance interpreters. There’s no way anyone is not going to know what’s happening in this show!
The evening begins with the performers humorously introducing themselves and their characters: we’re made welcome and put at ease. Some are deaf, others have visual impairment, maybe use a wheelchair: but whatever their story, these people are more than their ‘handicap’. In fact, they’re fun. The opera then relates the tale of an extraordinary person from history, similar in having a disability, who overcame adversity using her personal strengths to succeed in a world where many wanted her to change – or be changed. And that’s where The Paradis Files works so brilliantly; by allowing the exceptional talents of its cast and creatives to glitter, rather than focussing on any incapacities, and conjuring a space that integrates us all.
Theresia is a virtuoso pianist, taught by Salieri and friends with Mozart. An attractive woman – described as ‘The Blind Enchantress’ – she is pursued by the press (here titled The Gossips), and hindered by people wanting to ‘save’ her from her blindness, including her own mother. Despite abuse and personal loss, she succeeds through determination and talent.
Her story is based in the 18th century, but resonates fiercely with contemporary society. Exquisite set design by Bernadette Roberts cleverly integrates the contrasting eras, suggesting Georgian styling through beautiful colour choices and select props, but also boldly wrapping the modern, technological screen over the stage in an ornate gilt frame. Even the talented chamber orchestra, conducted vivaciously by Andrea Brown, appears to be somewhat non-conformist, including a drum kit and accordion. Then there’s the wonderfully playful libretto from Nicola Werenowska that occasionally drops in cheeky modern vernacular to keep that link alive.
Bethan Langford is sensational as Theresia, with an impressive voice and superb characterisations, ranging from titillating when teasing the boys with Gerda (Ella Taylor), to dejected and angry in her relationship with her mother (Maureen Braithwaite) and the many doctors who brutally attempt to cure her blindness. There is slick multi-roling from the Gossips (Ben Thapa, Andee-Louise Hypolite, Omar Ebrahim), impeccably supporting the main characters.
The spectrum of diversity onstage – in colour, gender, ability and everything inbetween – merges with the multiplicity of thoughtful access features to add an enormous richness to the proceedings. In particular, the BSL signing, led by talented intepreters Chandrika Gopalakrishnan and Max Marchewicz, for added an enhanced visual choreography that really elevated the performance, especially when extended into the movements of the wider cast.
This is a delightful, exciting work, made nuanced and satisfying by the thoughtfulness with which it has been created. It’s opera for everyone and sends a clear message that we are all welcome to participate in world-class performance: and this is how it’s done.
A Graeae Theatre Company production in partnership with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Curve Theatre.
Music: Errollyn Wallen
Musical Director and Conductor: Andrea Brown
Director: Jenny Sealey
Librettist: Nicola Werenowska
Co-Librettist and Original Idea: Selina Mills
Designer: Bernadette Roberts
Lighting Designer: Emma Chapman
Video Designer: Ben Glover
The Paradis Files will be touring until 12 May, details here.