Newsreal Archives/Critic' Corners

The following article shows that at the end it is all about treating people with dignity, even those doing time in prison.


November 12, 2006


25 to Life, With Time Off for Puccini



EVEN in sunshine the approach to Mountjoy Prison is a bleak experience. Under clouds and rain the place chills the heart. And as I rang the doorbell (a surreal touch, but how else do you get into prison as a free man?) on a sodden Irish morning, it felt like that standard horror-movie scene where the innocent tries the knocker at a gothic mansion. Not that Mountjoy is exactly gothic, but its 19th-century granite grimness serves as well. As it was meant to.

Mountjoy — known here as “the Joy” — is a relic of British rule. It was built in 1850 to strike fear into the hearts of a turbulent people and was kept busy in the early 1920s executing the most turbulent among them.

What is called the hang-house still stands, “complete with everything except the rope,” as I was told by the cheerful guard who showed it to me and who demonstrated the mechanism with a certain pride. And so do the 1850s cells, radiating out from a central hub where the “auld triangle,” immortalized in verse by Brendan Behan, hangs on the wall.

Everything at Mountjoy feels so museumlike it’s hard to believe that it still functions. But it does: the largest, roughest, toughest prison in the Irish system. Life is better these days for the female inmates, who occupy a recently built annex. But for the 450 men, things are much as they were a century ago, with one notable exception. A century ago they would have spent their days picking oakum. Now the inmates of the Joy are making opera.

Specifically they are making the set and costumes for “La Bohème,” which opens next Saturday at the Gaiety Theater here. Opera in the prisons of the British Isles is not entirely new: several small-scale touring companies have built reputations and secured government financing by taking professional singers behind bars to work on modest productions with prisoners.

But the Mountjoy project is of a different order, initiated by Opera Ireland, which is the nearest Ireland gets to a national company, and involving a second prison in faraway Perugia, Italy.

It started in 2004, when the Italian film director Porzia Addabbo became interested in a project at the maximum-security jail in Perugia, Maiano. “I had a friend teaching art to the inmates,” Ms. Addabbo explained, “and he had them design an imaginary production of ‘La Bohème.’

I filmed the project. RAI” — the Italian television company — “took the film, and it was shown at the Milan Future Festival in November 2004. All very good. But I wanted to take it further, to see if these people could design something that would actually work onstage. How to make it happen? I didn’t know.”

But Ms. Addabbo did know an Irish theater producer, Joe Mitchell, who offered to knock on doors in Ireland.

“I ended up sitting with Google looking for politicians with an interest in prison issues,” Mr. Mitchell said “and I found a senator, Mary Henry, who had previously been president of the Penal Reform Trust and even spoke Italian. So I thought, this was meant to be. She set up a meeting with the governor of Mountjoy. Opera Ireland came on board, as did the province of Perugia. And we had ourselves an international project.”

The deal was for Maiano prisoners to design costumes and sets for a new “Bohème,” for Mountjoy prisoners to turn the designs into reality and for Opera Ireland to put the whole thing onstage as part of its season at the Gaiety Theater. “It’s national stereotyping really, getting the Italians to design and the Irish to construct,” Mr. Mitchell said, “but that’s how it worked, in prison as in life.”

It took a year to put it all together. “It hasn’t been the easiest project I’ve ever done,” Mr. Mitchell said. “I’d never been inside a prison before, and it was daunting. These places aren’t designed to make you feel comfortable. But it’s been a profound experience, and I know that when the curtain goes up on Nov. 18th it will have been worth it.”

David Collopy, the chief executive officer of Opera Ireland, agreed, though handing his sets and costumes over to inexperienced amateurs carried a significant risk. Opera Ireland is, for all its status, a small company serving a small public, with only four full-scale productions a year. “Which makes this ‘Bohème’ 25 percent of our annual output,”

Mr. Collopy said. “So yes, you might think we were mad. And prison reform is not part of our remit. But when we were approached to do this, I couldn’t help remembering the moment in that film ‘Shawshank Redemption’ where the guy plays Mozart over the prison speaker system, and everything comes to a blissful halt.”

Mr. Collopy knows how sentimental that sounds, but his experience bore it out. The prisoners he worked with took a strong interest in the production, and not just because, as a prisoner named Mark advised me, the key to prison life is “finding how to stop the boredom.” (My access to the prisoners was granted only on the condition that they not be asked their full names, what crimes they had committed or how long their sentences were.)

Standing in the prison workshop, surrounded by Parisian garret window frames intended for Acts I and IV of “Bohème” and the commercial garden ornaments it usually turns out, Mark said he was skeptical at first. “I expected opera to be boring,” he explained. “I’d change the TV channel if it was on. But I’d really like to see one now because I think I’d understand it. The feelings, the passion: I think I get it now.”

Over in the women’s workshop, where every inch of space is filled with hanging racks of 1970s student fashion, band uniforms and gendarmes’ caps (slightly misshapen and not quite what the Royal Opera at Covent Garden would expect, but no doubt perfectly fine in sympathetic lighting from a distance), a prisoner, Jackie, said she would like to see an opera too.

I always had a healthy curiosity about it, and now I’ve started asking questions, it’s turned unhealthy,” she said. “I can’t get enough. It’ll be dreadful when it’s over, because we’ll all feel empty, back on the scrap heap again. Working on the opera, people have taken us for who we are, not what we’ve done. And that’s been great.”

Their response has convinced Mr. Collopy that he made the right decision. “We’ve had people working on these sets and costumes who can barely read and write,” he said, “who sign their names with a cross and who thought they had no skills. Now they’ve discovered they can do things they’d never imagined. There’s a lot of wasted talent in prison. So we’re making use of it.”

The “making use” is slightly sensitive, as Opera Ireland’s response to questions on the subject indicates. “We’re not in this for publicity or cheap labor,” Dieter Kaegi, the company’s artistic director, took pains to say. “We’ve had some money from the Department of Justice, but it only amounts to a few thousand euros. Most of the money we’ve provided ourselves, together with a lot of effort. We’ve done it because we believe in it.”

And perhaps no one believes in it more than Ms. Addabbo, who is the overall stage director for the production. She refuses to refer to her collaborative team as prisoners. They are crew. And they are good.

There’s a carpenter in Mountjoy,” she said, “who I’d work with in any professional context. And in Maiano there are two men who had no contact with theater at all but have great instinct for what the audience must see, how to close the set and achieve focus. And they’ve worked with real heart.”

It wasn’t just backstage tech work either.

We’ve argued about the characters,” Ms. Addabbo said, “about the rights and wrongs of what Rodolfo does in leaving Mimi. Most people took the practical view that he should work to support her. Some wanted to change the end so Mimi shouldn’t die. Everyone was in love with Musetta, probably because she’s strong and gets her way. And one thing that affected me deeply was the way the older crew, some of them in prison since they were very young, identified with young love and the energy of youth.

In the end it was decided to set the production very specifically in 1977, because that was when one of the men in Maiano graduated from university and, he argued, it was a year of freedom, of hope, of taking to the streets with what you believed.”

The only problems she encountered, she said, were logistical. Supply shipments had to be thoroughly searched by guards, and space was at a premium.

Prisons don’t have 12-meter rooms for scenery painting,” she explained. “We had to take over the gym for things like that. Then we had to cut the sets into small sections to get them through the prison doorways.”

But these problems offered an unexpected benefit, she added. “In Mountjoy you’d have officers and inmates scratching their heads together over some technical difficulty, and this creates a neutral zone for both sides. It defuses the tension between jailor and jailed. Time and again I saw this and was impressed.”

Getting the officers on board is the critical task in any prison project. You can expect a certain liberality of temperament from the governors, but the guards are likely to dismiss arts initiatives as nothing but extra work, imposed on them by naïvely well-intentioned people who forget why prisoners are behind bars.

In fact my first response was ‘No, it’s too much to take on,’ ” said Richard Keane, the affably avuncular Mountjoy officer who gave me my tour of the hanging house and who, for the last 22 years, has been in charge of the prison workshop. “To make three transportable stage sets for the Gaiety, which is the largest theater in Ireland, as well as 80 or more costumes — I said we can’t do it. Then didn’t they just talk me round?

I’ve never been to an opera in my life, but they brought us DVDs of two different stagings to get the point of the characters, and we all got hooked — not least because there’s all sorts in that story, as there are in here. From philosophers to seamstresses, you find every kind of person in a prison. So for the past year ‘La Bohème’ has been our life. Ask any of them here.”

Unfortunately for Mark and Jackie they won’t make it to the Gaiety Theater to see the curtain rise on their work. Mountjoy isn’t in the habit of letting its prisoners out for the night. But there may be other opportunities for them to develop their newfound interest.

This has been a good collaboration,” said Mr. Collopy, the opera executive, “and I don’t think we can let it end here. I’m not saying we’ve turned everyone at Mountjoy and Maiano into opera buffs or that discovering Bohème makes everything right with the world, but it’s certainly opened up something for the people we’ve worked with. It’s had impact. So we have to look at possibilities.”

As one obvious possibility Opera Ireland’s 2007-8 season includes Jake Heggie’s prison-based piece, “Dead Man Walking,” in a production whose details haven’t yet been fixed. Mountjoy could help with that in one way or another.

Meanwhile Jackie in the women’s workshop has a more pressing argument for Opera Ireland to come back. “They promised me a reward for all these costumes,” she said, “a cream slice. And I haven’t had it yet.”