Against the odds: Opera in a Portuguese prison

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The old carpentry workshop looks like something from Piranesi’s Carceri, which seems appropriate since it’s in the Youth Prison of Leiria (Portugal). The cavernous hangar is littered with old timber and unused machines: austerity means that no one learns woodwork here any more.

But on this wet Saturday afternoon, the place is packed. Two or three hundred people are crammed into one end of the hall; some of them have stood for more than two hours now. Between them and an improvised stage a chamber orchestra is playing a rhythmic, repetitive melody that underpins a riveting rap by thirty of the inmates who have just sung Mozart. The music builds insistently as they hand microphones to one another and perform in Portuguese, Creole, French and a little English, moving with the beat and savouring this moment that cements their two hour performance of Don Giovanni. A couple of young men have children on their shoulders, because wives and girlfriends have been allowed to join them on stage. There is a strange joyfulness, hard won and attenuated by suffering. Right now hope is strong, for these men, their families and for societies in need of reconciliation. One man waves a flag with the word ‘Liberdade’, freedom. With the performance’s climax comes a roar of applause and everyone is on their feet. Breathtaking. Unforgettable.

SAMP Don Giovanni Leiria 17

Artists often speak of the risks in their work and it’s true that creativity can be exposing. But if vulnerability may be more public for artists who read other people’s opinions of their work in the papers, it is familiar to every human being. One of the things that makes participatory art especially risky is that artists are asking others, including people who may live in situations of great vulnerability, to share in that process of exposure. These risks are taken on by people who may not know, at the outset, quite what they might be doing, how it might change them or what it might eventually cost.

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The idea of putting on a Mozart opera with untrained singers in a prison is, on the face of it, ridiculous. The technical demands of the music are huge; the participants have no experience of staging musical theatre, or the language of opera; the facilities are negligible, the security issues immense and the politics fraught. The list of what could go wrong is very long and the risks taken by those inmates who take part largely incalculable. It is a tribute to the courage, imagination and professional abilities of SAMP and project director Paulo Lameiro that all those traps have been avoided on the path to this performance. (The openness of the Prison Service and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to the proposal should also be recognised.)

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Months of workshops and rehearsals have enabled the participants to build the vocal skills to sing together the role of Leporello, the amoral Don’s servant. Some men even take on solos within the choral group. The staging, in modern dress, has been brilliantly imagined to make the site’s limitations part of the experience. The audience enters through a redundant ceramics workshop whose darkness is exploited to evoke the hell to which Don Giovanni is destined. Dissonant wails of brass, and writhing figures create an unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of the best of Punchdrunk’s work. For the opera itself, the principal singers and orchestral musicians are professionals, but the Commendatore, assassinated in the first scene and returning to haunt Don Giovanni, is played by the prison’s director. Prison officers take minor roles or perform with the orchestra. This story of crime and retribution is played out by people who know its realities at first hand and from both sides.

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In most participatory arts projects, the performance would be the culmination of the project. Not here, not today. Lameiro’s vision is not simply to put on an opera in a prison but to open new creative paths for all those involved. The workshops will resume after this performance, giving participants the chance to build on the experience. And dialogue is beginning with arts and cultural organisations in each person’s home town so that, as a man approaches his release date, there is a chance to continue working outside. What form those opportunities may take is still unknown: it may not be in opera or even classical music. But there will be support, interest and a possibility of inclusion.

So this project is only half way through and I shall follow its development in the months to come. My glimpse of the work and brief conversations with some of those involved have convinced me that –against the odds – something extraordinary has been happening here. There is a fuller account to be given, and much more to understand about how the work is being done, and that will follow in time. For now, I’m just grateful to have had a chance to experience the performance and meet some of those involved. Against the odds, they succeed triumphantly and I am full of admiration.

There’s a short introductory video to the project here (it has English subtitles and the images in the post are from the film):



‘Integrate life and work and friendship’

Integrate life and work and friendship. Don’t tie yourself to institutions. Live cheaply and you’ll remain free. And then, do whatever it is that gets you up in the morning.

Those words come from an early manifesto written by Amber Collective in 1968. Guided by those principles, Amber has gone on to produce a remarkable body of film and photography work that celebrates working people’s lives and culture. Based in North East England, the group has recorded the final years of industrial society on Tyneside and the emergence of its complex, fragmented successor. Not all their work is obviously ‘participatory’ but the group’s values and commitment, undiminished after nearly 50 years, are a beacon of socially engaged arts practice and deserve to be much better known.

You can read about them here as the first Case Study goes online, or download a PDF version by clicking on the link below:

Launch, Amber, 1974

Participatory art in Portugal

Two or three years ago, I began to hear about some of the participatory arts projects happening in Portugal and Spain. These are not countries I know well, though I was aware of the upheaval they have experienced in the aftermath of the 2008 crash and the troubles of the Eurozone. What limited government funds there had been for this work seemed to be drying up and yet I was hearing about exciting, ambitious projects like Migranland, a production co-created by 14 migrants and the theatre director Àlex Rigola. At a conference in Seville, I met less celebrated artists who were doing equally imaginative work in often difficult conditions.

Two things seemed specially interesting in this work. First, its relationship with government was independent, even sometimes challenging. Secondly, its roots and ideas were not those I was familiar with from a British context, where decades of participatory art practice shapes so many assumptions. So, in planning ‘A Restless Art’ I was determined to involve artists working in other European cultures. With limited resources, I settled on the contrasting experiences of the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal as the main focus, though I will look further afield. My limited knowledge of languages, other cultures and their histories makes this risky and exciting – but that’s not a bad test of whether something is worth doing.

On Thursday, thanks to the Gulbenkian Foundation, I’ll be in Lisbon to meet some of the artists who have been funded through their PARTIS programme, which aims to support social inclusion through the arts. Interestingly, it an initiative of the Human Development rather than the Arts programme, and so is a direct response to some of the social pressures faced by Portuguese people today. You can get a glimpse of some of these projects online in a series of short videos (with English subtitles for those, like me, with insufficient Portuguese). At the weekend, I’ll be seeing a Mozart opera performed by by young offenders of a prison as part of this programme: more later. In the meantime, here’s a short video about a photography project with young people in an education centre.

Participation can be more important than art

My talk at last week’s SIMM-posium in Ghent was an opportunity to share some concerns about widely held assumptions in the field. (You can download the paper from the Resources page.) One of those assumptions is that the effects of participation and the effects of art are the same – but they’re not. It’s something I touched on long ago at the end of Use or Ornament? but it is still rarely discussed. The heart of the question is this:

If people have gained from participating in an art project, could they have gained as much (or more) from joining a sports team, a social club or a church?

As the eminent psychologist Michael Argyle showed, wider social networks, new skills, increased confidence and happiness are all common outcomes of social participation. Art can be a great way of facilitating that participation but there are many others. If we understand that, we can ask a more interesting question:

What do people gain only from participating in art?

In other words, if playing sport will get me fitter and build my stamina (at the risk of injury), what will participating in art do for me that sport will not? That question is at the heart of A Restless Art, as well as being discussed more fully in my paper, so if you have any thoughts about it, please do share them in the comments below.

Bright Brass

As if to underline the point about what may be important to participants, I saw this deeply moving film about a children’s music project in Congo. It is one of two now being researched by the man behind SIMM, Lukas Pairon, and Rachel Corner, who made the film was also there. It is a powerful story of healing in a dark world, but it’s important to reflect on how that healing might be happening.

Community or amateur?

The first day of the symposium on the Social Impact of Music Making that I’m attending in Ghent (Belgium) closed with a performance by the Ledebirds, described in the programme as a ‘community orchestra’. As I listened to their joyful repertoire of Turkish, Russian and Afghan melodies, I found myself wondering what the difference might be between this and an amateur orchestra.

In the arts, the word ‘amateur’ often brings condescension or even scorn, quite unfairly in my view. The first Regular Marvel, Where We Dream, celebrates the 70 year history of the West Bromwich Operatic Society and challenges some entrenched ideas about amateur theatre. Might the Ledebirds have chosen the word ‘community’ to escape some of this prejudice?

A subsequent conversation with one of the members made clear that this wasn’t so. The orchestra has clear values and intentions that take it in a different direction. Its  commitment to inclusion was evident on stage, in the ages of the musicians and the range of instruments played. During the concert, the leader explained that the choice of repertoire reflected some of the cultures present  in the city. Rooted in a neighbourhood of Ghent, their music also speaks about a certain idea of living together.

In short, this is not an ensemble that mirrors the structure and artistic values of the classical orchestra. Its very music, arranged as it is in response to the available instruments, speaks of a different vision that the word ‘community’ goes some way to indicating. The Ledebirds is not, cannot be, a less good version of what professional musicians do. It’s much too creative for that.