Prison choirs sing in a reboot of Beethoven’s opera about unjust incarceration
Beethoven’s opera Fidelio is the story of a man unjustly imprisoned. Through this story, an enterprising group of artists found a way to bring Fidelioliterally, in today’s prison system — and to make the voices of these men and women heard.
In this updated version of Fidelio staged by New York City heartbeat opera, the main character is Stan, a Black Lives Matter activist who was thrown into solitary confinement. His wife, Leah, tries to rescue him. The music is always sung in German, but the spoken parts are in English.
In person, this production is small: there are only a handful of instrumentalists and singers on stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Daniel Schlosberg, Heartbeat’s co-musical director, reduces the full orchestra to just two pianos, two cellos, two French horns and a percussionist. The effect is surprisingly intimate and imaginative, texturally effective, and also slightly claustrophobic – not out of place in a prison.)
But this production is a much larger effort, notes Ethan Heard, who is co-founder and artistic director of Heartbeat Opera.
“I revisited the story and was so struck by the idea of a wrongfully incarcerated man and this incredible woman, his wife, who infiltrates the prison where she believes he was And it felt like an opera that we could really update for a contemporary American version,” Heard says.
Heartbeat first staged their version of Fidelio in 2018, with plans to bring it back in 2020. Of course, the pandemic disrupted those plans – and the creative team again updated their article to reflect some events of the past two years, from the nation’s racial reckoning to January 6. uprising in the Capitol.
Stan was imprisoned by the corrupt prison governor Pizarro. In the 2022 Heartbeat staging, Pizarro quotes former President Donald Trump, urging his pals to “Stand Back and Stay Away” as he plots Stan’s murder. A senior guard, Roc – who is black himself – comes to struggle with his position in the system as he watches largely imprisoned black and brown men.
Roc’s daughter Marcy, who also works at the prison, falls in love with Leah, who has taken a job there to find her husband. (In Beethoven’s original opera, Leah disguised herself as a young man to infiltrate the prison; here, she is queer.)
The emotional peak of any version of Fidelio is a scene in which the prisoners are given a brief outing in the fresh air, exulting in a fleeting moment that feels a bit like freedom.
Thinking about this scene, Heard and co-musical director Daniel Schlosberg had 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 from Schlosberg: Amanda Weber, choir director in a Minnesota prison. In turn, she helped put them in touch with other such groups. Accordingly, in the production of Heartbeat, singers from six prison musical groups – a mix of more than 100 incarcerated men and women as well as around 70 community volunteers – are the ones who sing the “Prisoner’s Chorus”.
The groups are the Oakdale Community Choir in Iowa; KUJI Male Choir, UBUNTU Male Choir and HOPE Thru Harmony Women’s Choir in Ohio; East Hill singers in Kansas; and the Weber Group leads, voice of hope in Minnesota.
“In March 2018, Dan and I were able to visit these choirs in person — four of the choirs — and film and record and incorporate that into the show,” Heard explains. (Guards at the other two prisons were not allowing the filming, he said.)
Their recordings, made on prison premises and digitally assembled, are screened on stage in the Heartbeat Opera production.
Schlosberg says that moment in the opera is everything – his heart and his soul.
“That’s where Beethoven really shines for me, both in his philosophy of justice and freedom,” observes Schlosberg. “It’s some of the most beautiful music ever written for a chorus in an opera, and it’s the center, both emotionally and musically. Everything about this piece kind of comes from there.”
In order to make this collaboration a reality, the Heartbeat team had to gain the trust of the singers in prison. Michael Powell is one such choir member; he is also known as Black. He was formerly incarcerated in Ohio, at Marion Correctional, and sang there in the KUJI Men’s Chorus. Above all, says Black, they didn’t want to be used as props.
“KUJI is full of characters, but we are not characters for others, you know what I mean?” Black laughs. “Since Danny and Ethan came in, it’s been like the rapid detection process – let’s see what’s going on there because we don’t want to feel taken advantage of in any way. We’re taken advantage of enough already.”
Derrell Acon is the associate artistic director of Heartbeat. In Fidelio, he sings the role of Roc. Acon says opera can be a great vehicle for addressing and reflecting social movements.
“In the 1830s and 1840s,” Acon notes, “people were in the streets shouting ‘Viva Verdi!’ because opera was such a relevant space for disruption, a relevant space for human connection and reflection. For me, it’s still OK, so here’s the 18th, 19th century version. What’s the 2022 version?”
Acon also says that this reworked version of Fidelio had a special meaning for him.
“I am someone who has been impacted by the prison system. I have a brother who was incarcerated for a very long time,” he says. “And, you know, it clearly affects family dynamics. So there’s this play.”
“But there’s also just part of the fact that it’s not really a justice mechanism, but more of a revenue mechanism,” Acon continues, referring to the use of privatized prisons. “It rests on the backs of blacks and browns. Racism is at the heart of what keeps this machine moving forward.”
Black, lead singer of the KUJI Male Choir, was released from prison in 2020. He is now Director of Outreach and New Initiatives for a small nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio, Healing Broken Circles, which works with those affected by the justice system. He is also a musician and actor.
“If you really want to try to impact lives or if you care about prison justice reform or any of those things,” Black says, “support the arts that come into these prisons and support the community coming out of prison, their dreams and aspirations to continue the art they have learned.”
Prior to performances at the Met, the museum displayed letters of some of the incarcerated singers, in which they described their feelings about the collaboration.
“Gradually,” wrote one person from the East Hill Singers in an unsigned letter, “the gravity of what I was doing set in, it was an honor that someone wanted us to be part of not just their opera , but also their careers and their lives. Having been in prison for more than 20 years, I had no place in the free world and this was an opportunity for me to share something really positive with my friends and my family… I had the opportunity to meet and bond with a great group of people and I almost feel free.”
The staging of Heartbeat Opera by Fidelio is currently touring the country, with performances in California and Arizona.