Auslan Choir Translates Handel’s Messiah into Sign Language

14 Dec 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Articles

This article was originally posted by Elissa Blake on The Sydney Morning Herald.


Billed as a world-first, the Sydney Philharmonia Choir’s presentation of Handel’s Messiah will feature a deaf community “signing” choir on stage alongside a full orchestra and the 400 massed voices of the Symphony and Christmas choirs.


As well as translating the libretto into Auslan (Australian Sign Language), the 20-strong signing choir will add movement to convey emotion – all in time to the music.


“We aim to deliver the meaning of the words through sign language but do it in a poetic and lyrical way,” says deaf actor, director and Auslan translator Alex Jones. “Signing can express so much using visual elements, space and the synchronicity of the movement. It’s going to be really powerful for the regular Messiah attendees.”


The signing choir will add movements to the translation that will be easy to understand for those without Auslan.


The signing choir will add movements to the translation that will be easy to understand for those without Auslan.


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Jones, who co-directs the signing choir with Sydney Philharmonia Choir’s music director Brett Weymark, says they have chosen iconic signs the audience might already be familiar with, as well as adding movements that will be easy to understand for those without Auslan.

“For example, the audience will see half the signing choir make a fist and use that to ‘crucify’ their other hand, which is open,” Jones explains. “The other half of the choir will do the same thing, using the opposite hand. Then they will all branch out looking like they are on the cross. That will be very visual for the audience.”


The word “hallelujah” used repeatedly in the famous Hallelujah Chorus will be represented by the Auslan sign for “happy” and the sign for “Christ”, which is signified by raising the arms in the air, as if in praise.


“The word ‘hallelujah’ is repeated so often that we’ve worked out a number of ways to represent it as a celebration. Sometimes you’ll see us throw our arms in the air. Other times, you’ll see us sign ‘happy’ or we’ll be cheering or waving our arms around. It will be absolutely recognisable,” Jones says.


More than half the signers are deaf. Others are hearing people fluent in Auslan. Jones says it’s vital to have some hearing people who can help with the tempo. “All of the choir are volunteers from the deaf community. Some of them have had very little performing experience and they are very nervous,” says Jones. “But it’s a incredible opportunity for them to be part of something so exquisite.”


Weymark says he got the idea for the signing choir after an Accessible Arts launch at the Sydney Opera House, where an opera singer performed the Toreador Song from Carmen with an Auslan translator.


“I was instantly moved by the beauty of it and by watching and listening at the same time, I was getting a whole lot of other meanings and depth,” Weymark says.


“I found it dramatically satisfying. It is a poetic license to interpret the music through gesture. I immediately thought we should do this with Messiah. The singers in the big choir saw them rehearsing on Sunday and they are absolutely hypnotised by it. If the singers are convinced, I’m sure the audience will find it mind blowing.”


Handel’s Messiah is at the Sydney Opera House from December 3-6.


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