Posts Tagged ‘met Museum’

Photo: Russ Rowland/Heartbeat Opera.
Professional opera singers Kelly Griffin and Derrell Acon perform with incarcerated singers for Heartbeat Opera’s production of Fidelio in a dress rehearsal at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Positive things happen when punishment for people who have committed crimes doesn’t negate their basic humanity. That’s why I like posting stories about enlightened systems (see Norway’s successful rehabilitation process, here) and programs that bring the arts inside the walls.

Anastasia Tsioulcas reported recently at National Public Radio (NPR) about an unusual production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, the story of a man who has been imprisoned for political reasons.

“A group of enterprising artists has found a way to bring Fidelio, quite literally, into today’s incarceration system — and to bring the voices of those men and women to the stage.

“In this updated version of Fidelio staged by New York City’s Heartbeat Opera, the main character is Stan, a Black Lives Matter activist who has been thrown into solitary confinement. His wife, Leah, tries to rescue him. The music is still sung in German, but the spoken parts are in English.

“In person, this production is small: there’s just a handful each of instrumentalists and singers on stage at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. … But this production is a much larger effort, notes Ethan Heard, who is a co-founder and artistic director of Heartbeat Opera.

” ‘I revisited the story and was just so struck by the idea of a wrongfully incarcerated man and this amazing woman, his wife, who infiltrates the prison where she believes he’s been kept. And it felt like an opera we could really update for a contemporary American version,’ Heard says.

“Heartbeat first staged its version of Fidelio in 2018 [then updated it] to reflect certain events of the past couple of years, from the nation’s racial reckoning to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“Stan has been jailed by the corrupt prison governor Pizarro [who exhorts] his cronies to ‘stand back and stand by’ as he plots Stan’s murder. A senior guard, Roc — who is Black himself — comes to wrestle with his position in the system. …

“The emotional apex of any version of Fidelio is a scene in which the prisoners are allowed a brief outing into the fresh air, exulting in a passing moment that feels just a little bit like freedom.

“In thinking about that scene, Heard and co-musical director Daniel Schlosberg hit upon a much larger idea that spoke to what they really wanted this production to address: mass incarceration in America.

“They connected with an old friend of Schlosberg: Amanda Weber, a prison choir director in Minnesota. She in turn helped put them in touch with other such groups. As a result, in Heartbeat’s production, singers from six prison musical groups — a mix of over 100 men and women who are incarcerated as well as about 70 community volunteers — are the ones singing the ‘Prisoners’ Chorus.’

“The groups are the Oakdale Community Choir in Iowa; KUJI Men’s Chorus, UBUNTU Men’s Chorus and HOPE Thru Harmony Women’s Choir in Ohio; East Hill Singers in Kansas; and the group Weber leads, Voices of Hope in Minnesota. …

“Schlosberg says that this moment in the opera [is] some of the most gorgeous music ever written for chorus in an opera, and that is the center, both emotionally and musically. Everything about this piece kind of comes from there.’

“In order to make this collaboration happen, the Heartbeat team had to earn the trust of the singers in prison. Michael Powell is one of those chorus members; he’s also known by the name Black. He was formerly incarcerated in Ohio, at Marion Correctional, and sang in the KUJI Men’s Chorus there. Above all, Black says, they didn’t want to be used as a prop. …

‘When Danny and Ethan came in, it was like the quick feel-out process — let’s see what’s going on there because we don’t want to feel exploited in any way. We already get exploited enough.’

“Derrell Acon is the associate artistic director of Heartbeat. In Fidelio, he sings the role of Roc. Acon says that opera can be a great vehicle for addressing and reflecting social movements. …

” ‘I’m someone who has been impacted by the carceral system. I have a sibling who was incarcerated. … This is not actually a mechanism for justice, but rather revenue,’ Acon continues, referring to the use of privatized prisons. ‘It sits on the backs of Black and brown people.’ …

“Black, the singer from the KUJI men’s chorus, was released from prison in 2020. He’s now the director of outreach and new initiatives for a small non-profit in Columbus, Ohio, Healing Broken Circles, which works with people touched by the justice system. …

” ‘If you really want to try to impact lives or if you care anything about prison justice reform or any of those things,’ Black says, ‘support the arts going into those prisons and support the community coming out of prison.’ ” More at NPR, here.

Music heals. And in case you missed it, see also what music can do for people in a bomb shelter, here.

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