Caged Birds Sing

Prison librarian Rolando Valdes and his band of libretto-loving inmates stage an opera

Cavalleria Rusticana follows the Verdi and features four guest soloists who have appeared in operas from Naples to New York -- tenor Edgardo Maria Sensi, mezzo-soprano Paola Semprini, mezzo-soprano Mabel Ledo, bass baritone Ed Pierson, and contralto Dorothy D'Aprix. The choir's raw vocal energies provide a stimulating contrast to the more conventional talents of the four seasoned soloists.

The plot -- a tragedy revolving around adultery and murder -- is all too real for some of the prisoners. Turiddu (Sensi) returns from war to find his true love Lola (Ledo) married to Alfio (Pierson). Turiddu then seduces and impregnates Santuzza (Semprini). Lola and Turiddu have an affair. The villagers (the DCI Inmate Opera Club choir) comment on the lovely spring weather. Santuzza finds out about the affair and cries to Turiddu's mother (D'Aprix). Santuzza also reveals the tryst to Alfio, who vows vengeance. After Easter mass, Turiddu raises a glass with members of the congregation (the choir) and they all sing of the wonders of wine. Then Alfio confronts Turiddu. Turiddu bites Alfio's earlobe and challenges him to a duel. Alfio kills Turiddu. Lola and Santuzza faint upon hearing the news. The choir returns for the finale.

The moral of the story? "Nobody really wanted to go through with what was going on, but they were forced to by custom and fate," York summarizes.

The soloists were awe-inspiring in the way that only professional opera singers can be. But it was the choir that brought the house down. "I was weeping! I was weeping!" wails Davidson afterward.

"I don't think I sang well tonight, but it was fun being here," D'Aprix says gleefully. "I think this idea is so super." Ledo seems almost prepared to lobby for a gubernatorial pardon for the choir. "They're wonderful people and they were just so appreciative and so supportive," she exudes. "Opera brings them closer to a place that perhaps they don't know here. A new place, a different place, a place of happiness."

For the audience, the outlandish performance was rife with meaning. Dan Dustin, a Florida International University professor of health and recreation, finds a fascinating subtext: The prisoners transcend their imprisonment through singing. "It's all about freedom," he propounds. "In our field, there are theorists who believe that perceived freedom is crucial for making good choices."

DCI assistant superintendent Elton Quinn has a more pragmatic interpretation. "It's a good rehabilitative effort," he smiles. "It gives the prisoners guidance."

Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Nancy Blount, another audience member, takes Quinn's social realism a step further: "What happens to people in prison who don't get an education and don't have hope of something better? What happens when they get out? They come right back in."

Soon the guest soloists and audience are gone. But the last act is still to come. As the inmates sit in the pews to be counted, they cannot contain their exuberance. "Valdes! Valdes! Valdes!" they chant. After they quiet down, DCI superintendent Willie Floyd praises them for demonstrating a "positive aspect of prison."

When all are counted, the officers order them to line up on a walkway outside. The group marches under the floodlights to a white school bus, which takes them back to the entrance of DCI's north annex. After the bus rolls slowly through the gate, it clangs shut.

For Wagner the beauty of opera was its combination of drama, music, poetry, and design. But he left out rehabilitation. Valdes believes a prison program devoted to opera and other arts will keep prisoners from returning to DCI. "You have to separate the rotten apples from the good apples.

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