Deaf Halifax musician to sign major concert at Royal Festival Hall

Dr Paul Whittaker OBE
Dr Paul Whittaker OBE

An inspirational speaker and musician from Halifax will become the first person to sign a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Friday.

Paul Whittaker, who has lived in Rishworth for the last 12 years, was born deaf, and started signing major music shows such as Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon in 1992.

Royal Festival Hall. Picture: Getty Images

Royal Festival Hall. Picture: Getty Images

He has also signed concerts, and has worked at the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh Festival. Paul has a music degree from Wadham College, Oxford, and in 2007 was awarded an OBE for Services to Music.

This Friday he will sign Miessa Solemnis with the Bach coir, who came up with the idea of having the concert signed in order to reach new audiences.

“It’s the first time this piece has ever been signed, as far as we know,” says Paul. “It’s hard work, translating from Latin into sign language then matching that with the music is a huge challenge but I love it.

“A choir member came up with this idea of having the concert signed. Beethoven was, of course, deaf, and so this seemed an ideal performance to do.

“Myself and Sir Richard Stilgoe are introducing the piece, chatting a bit about Beethoven’s own deafness and how deaf people enjoy and make music.

“I don’t know of anyone else who would take on such a challenge, but it’s something I love as it brings together my musical knowledge and experience, my deafness, my use of sign language, and enables access for other deaf people.

“It’s taken hours of preparation already and I do feel a huge amount of pressure.”

Paul is also signing for the Cube Choir at Square Chapel on July 7, and also runs a signing choir in Elland on a Tuesday evening - one of four he runs.

“I got into this work through Richard Stilgoe actually,” he says. “Way back in the late 1980’s he supported the work I was doing through the charity “Music and the Deaf” which I founded and ran for 27 years until leaving in 2015.

“One day I mentioned to Richard that I’d love to sign a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” which, at the time had just opened in a new production at the London Palladium.

“Richard suggested I write to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production company, and the result was that I found myself onstage at the Palladium on June 17, 1992, signing “Joseph” with Philip Schofield in the lead role. From there I got asked to sign many other productions.

“I also wanted to sign concerts so a few choirs accepted that offer, including The Sixteen, one of the best choirs in the world. I’ve signed “The Messiah” a few times but the Beethoven Missa Solemnis is a whole new ball game.

“It’s huge - full orchestra, big choir, four soloists, lasting about 75 minutes.

“I translate the original Latin text of the Mass into English then work out how to sign it. It’s really a double translation.

“The important thing is to get the meaning over - you don’t simply sign the words - and there’s also the musical aspects to consider - the speed, volume, rhythm, shape of the melody, and so on.

“Hopefully the Royal Festival Hall will be sold out. The Bach Choir is one of London’s most famous choirs and has a big following.”