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Prison choirs sing in a reboot of Beethoven's opera about unjust incarceration

Opera singers Kelly Griffin and Derrell Acon perform with singers in incarceration in Heartbeat Opera's production of <em>Fidelio</em> at a dress rehearsal at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Russ Rowland
Courtesy of Heartbeat Opera
Opera singers Kelly Griffin and Derrell Acon perform with singers in incarceration in Heartbeat Opera's production of Fidelio at a dress rehearsal at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Beethoven's opera Fidelio is the story of a man who has been unjustly imprisoned. Through that story, 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. (Daniel Schlosberg, Heartbeat's co-musical director, strips the full orchestra down to just two pianos, two cellos, two French horns and a percussionist. The effect is strikingly intimate and imaginative, texturally effective, and also slightly claustrophobia-inducing — not out of place in a prison.)

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, with plans to bring it back in 2020. Of course, the pandemic disrupted those plans — and the creative team updated their piece again 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. In the 2022 Heartbeat staging, Pizarro quotes former President Donald Trump, exhorting 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 as he watches largely Black and brown men being imprisoned.

Corey McKern as Pizarro and Derrell Acon as Roc.
Russ Rowland / Courtesy of Heartbeat Opera
Courtesy of Heartbeat Opera
Corey McKern as Pizarro and Derrell Acon as Roc.

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 has disguised herself as a young man to infiltrate the jail; here, she is queer.)

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 Chorusand HOPE Thru Harmony Women's Choir in Ohio; East Hill Singers in Kansas; and the group Weber leads, Voices of Hope in Minnesota.

"In March of 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. (The wardens at the other two prisons would not allow filming, he says.)

Their recordings, made in the prison facilities and stitched together digitally, are projected onto the stage in the Heartbeat Opera production.

Schlosberg says that this moment in the opera is everything — its heart and soul.

"This is where for me Beethoven really shines, both in his philosophy about justice and freedom," Schlosberg observes. "It 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.

"KUJI is full of characters, but we are not characters for other people, you know what I mean?" Black laughs. "From 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.

"In the 1830s and 40s," Acon notes, "folks were out on the street screaming 'Viva Verdi!' because opera was such a relevant space for disruption, relevant space for human connection and reflection. For me, it's always OK, so here's the 18th, 19th-century version. What's the 2022 version?"

Acon also says that this reworked version of Fidelio had particular meaning for him.

"I'm someone who has been impacted by the carceral system. I have a sibling who was incarcerated for a very long time," he says. "And, you know, clearly it affects family dynamics. So there's that piece."

"But there's also just a piece of the fact that 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. Racism is at the core of what makes that machine continue to roll forward."

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. He's also a musician and actor.

"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, their dreams and aspirations of continuing the art that they've learned."

Before the performances at the Met, the museum posted letters from some of the singers who are incarcerated, in which they described their feelings about the collaboration.

"Gradually," one person from the East Hill Singers wrote in an unsigned letter, "the gravity of what I was doing settled in, it was an honor that someone wanted us to be a part of not just their opera but their careers and lives. Having been in prison for more than 20 years I have not had a place in the free world and this has been an opportunity for me to share something truly positive with my friends and family... I have had the opportunity to meet and bond with a great group of people and I almost feel free."

Heartbeat Opera's staging of Fidelio is currently touring the country, with performances in California and Arizona.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.