Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Night at the Opera

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Night at the Opera

Article excerpt

Everything about this is surreal. Waiting patiently to pass through I the metal detector, we glance upward through the concertina wire to see a rainbow reaching out from an otherwise forbidding sky.

The guards instruct us to surrender our driver's licenses. We are then ordered to turn over anything else in our possession that might be fashioned into a weapon. Uneasy giggles punctuate the air. We, too, it seems, are being processed into the penitentiary.

Once through the metal detector, chaperones escort us to a holding area and invite us to help ourselves to coffee, punch, and cookies. It is a curious mix of people. By their dress and demeanor, several guests appear to be aficionados of the opera. Several others, judging by their badges and serious demeanor, appear to be prison staff. We meet a reporter from Miami's New Times. He is conspicuous by his yellow legal pad and probing nature. Beyond that, it is hard to tell just who the rest of these people are. Relatives of the chorus, perhaps?

In a few minutes, the chaperones lead us to another part of the complex -- the prison chapel. Here we find ourselves rubbing elbows with several inmates in their prison garb, as well as camera crews from local and national television stations. An interview with one of the leads, Mabel Ledo, a mezzo-soprano, unfolds before us. She glows on camera and talks reflectively about the meaning of her involvement in the evening's production. She is soft-spoken and delicate-looking, a stark contrast to the convicts surrounding her. There is an electricity in the air, a buzz that suggests something important is about to happen. It is opening night at the opera.

Cavalleria Rusticana, a melodrama in one act by Pietro Mascagni, was first performed in 1890 in Rome. Tonight's performance features five professional opera singers and a chorus of inmates from the Dade Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison. The inmates have refined their operatic talents under the tutelage of Rolando Valdes, the prison librarian and chorus director. Valdes, an opera buff, introduced the inmates to opera more than a decade ago. To his surprise, they not only learned to appreciate opera, they aspired to sing it. Ever since, he has worked with them in his free time, honing their skills. Thanks to a grant from the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council and the generosity of a handful of professional opera singers who lent their time, voices, and expertise to the learning process, tonight is the culmination of a dream: a public performance.

After a synopsis of the plot and a warm-up of the chorus under the direction of Valdes, we are ready to begin. The leads are in costume; the chorus is not. The lights stay up. Nevertheless, once Turiddu (played by tenor Edgardo Sensi) begins a plaintive love song offstage to his mistress Lola (played by Ledo), the harsh circumstances surrounding the opera recede, and the audience is left to contemplate the beauty of the tenor's voice. As he sings, "O, Lola," one can almost feel a stretching, reaching, uplifting quality. Soon the prison chorus enters and adds its voice to the developing drama. The members of the chorus are stiff at first and appear uncomfortable. But, of course, they are amateurs. As the opera proceeds, they relax and begin to enjoy themselves. The audience reinforces their efforts. Everybody in the room wants them to succeed.

As the performers sing their way through a plot filled with longing, infidelity, and revenge, some members of the audience look past the prisoners to see the "people" beneath the uniforms. In this frame of mind, it is easy to forget just why these inmates have wound up in their current situation. Other more inquisitive audience members continue to ask themselves, "Who's in for what?"

The opera builds to its climax and then, all too soon, it is over. The audience breaks into resounding applause. The leads take their bows, as do the chorus, the pianist, and Valdes. …

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