Caged Birds Sing

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

In the golden glow of an October evening, several dozen opera aficionados chat politely as they queue for a much-heralded engagement. These connoisseurs of Gesamtkunstwerk, "the total art form," as Richard Wagner called opera, have traveled great distances to see a radical new staging of Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), the century-old, one-act work by Italian composer Pietro Mascagni.

Before the show, elegantly attired Louis Hernandez comments on the production's groundbreaking nature as he waits in line. "This is probably the most radical change in opera you can have," he declares. A preschool teacher, Hernandez is one of some 60 people who acquired tickets to the limited engagement; many others were turned away. "I think the question is how do you bring new audiences to an art form? How do you keep it alive with new populations, new themes, new settings?"

New settings indeed. One by one Hernandez and the others are funneled through an ominous metal gate beneath coils of razor wire. They plunk their keys, tubes of lipstick, and other objects onto a long folding table in order to avoid setting off the metal detector. Then ushers dressed in crisp white shirts, brown pants, and black hip holsters escort them into the theater: a small chapel on the second floor of a two-story cement building at the Dade Correctional Institution (DCI), one of South Florida's most notorious prisons.

They have come to DCI, which sprawls over several verdant acres near Florida City, to witness the work of the Inmate Opera Club. While some people consider a trip to the opera akin to a prison sentence, the 50 inmate/performers find the avocation liberating. DCI librarian Rolando Valdes formed the club ten years ago after a curious prisoner caught a glimpse of an opera video. "He got angry," Valdes remembers. "He said, 'How could you not tell us about something so beautiful?'" So Valdes immediately featured Puccini's opera The Girl of the Golden West among his movie offerings for inmates. "That got their creative juices flowing," Valdes says. "Then they wanted to sing."

Thus the opera company was born. In 1994 prisoners wrote an original three-act production called El Caido (The Fallen) with the help of Clifford Brooks, then director of education for the Greater Miami Opera. "To me, it's a form of escape, to block out everything and put myself in another world," bellows Raymond York, a wiry 29-year-old with a huge, resonant bass voice. He was convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery in Volusia County in 1988 and is serving a life sentence. In prison he's been busted for gambling, fighting, and possession of drugs and alcohol. But opera is helping him mend his ways, he says. He is the Inmate Opera Club's production and public relations manager, as well as a singer. Asked about the art's utility, he produces from a manila folder a statement that he wrote: Opera "teaches discipline, tolerance, flexibility, teamwork, self-esteem, and the desire to grow through the international language of higher education."

Scott Phillips, a tall, muscular 37-year-old Pompano Beach native, is serving a five-year sentence for battery on a police officer, among other things. This is his sixth stint in prison since 1987 for crimes including aggravated assault, burglary, grand theft, and illegal possession of firearms. But Phillips now says he would rather work on honing his low F, which caught Valdes's ear one day in the library as the inmate sang along with a videotape Spartafuccio, a hired killer in Verdi's La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny).

"I could relate to that because my girlfriend was messing up on me, which is kind of what triggered me to get in trouble," Phillips says. "Opera gives me a way to release my fears and anger. It's sort of like magic. I could relate and accept the fact that, hey, it's not only happened to me, it's done happened before. And to come to the conclusion that life is going to be unfair and you just learn to deal with it."

For an opera singer, prison life can be unkind. As in the outside world, not everyone in the slammer is respectful of the art. "They get laughed at," winces the 56-year-old Valdes through large square eyeglasses. "Some prisoners say, 'That's a bunch of screaming.'" Some corrections officials sneer too. One administrator, who Valdes says works at another prison, gave a cranky thumbs-down. "He said 'You're not an opera impresario, you're a prison librarian,'" Valdes recounts, but adds that his bosses at DCI are supportive. And this year the club received $3500 from the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council.

And so the stage is set for the Inmate Opera Club's October 16 performance of Cavalleria Rusticana. It is far more heavily attended than the September show mentioned in the Miami Herald. The pews are packed. In back, video crews for NBC's Today Show, America's Most Wanted, CNN Espanol, and a German TV network prepare their cameras. Corrections officers guard the two doorways. Valdes, in a black suit and black cowboy hat, stands motionless before the small stage with his back to the audience. Eighteen men dressed in grayish-blue prison togs march in silently and face him. The audience freezes. Valdes flaps his arms and the prisoners emit a daringly dissonant and literally stunning a cappella arrangement of Verdi's "Coro di Schiavi Ebrei." Two young women in the audience are not prepared for the challenging harmonic structure and can hardly contain their laughter, but they are clearly among the unenlightened minority. "Bravo! Bravo!" yells Joyce Davidson, a music dean at the New World School of the Arts, amid an outburst of thunderous applause.

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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