SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The words are German, the music is Beethoven, and the singers are incarcerated.
Michael Powell served more than 13 years behind bars at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio where he got involved in the men’s chorus.
One day the conductor told them they were going to be singing Fidelio in German.
“I was like 'y’all are going to sing in German. I am not going to sing in German.' I don’t know nothing about German,” he said. “I was intimidated if I’m being honest.”
More than 100 inmates from six different prison-based choral groups were featured in Heartbeat Opera’s new visual album called Breathing Free. They played a chorus of political prisoners singing, “Oh what joy, in open air, freely to breathe again.”
“I identified with that while being in prison,” Powell said. “You know, like, freedom seems like it’s right on the other side of the fence but at the same time it seems so far away.”
From Eric Garner to George Floyd, the phrase “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. This filmed song cycle feels like a response to that cry. A handful of professional singers and dancers perform, often in the open air, in wide, empty, quiet spaces. The bare walls around the prison singers stand out in stark contrast.
Dr. Derrell Acon, a bass baritone in the production, was profoundly moved when he first saw footage of the inmate chorus singing about freedom.
“Having fresh air, what it feels like to be heard, it was something that was overwhelmingly emotional,” he said.
As a performer, he moves in and out of character freely, stepping away, he says, whenever he chooses.
“For our incarcerated colleagues who sang those choruses there is no stepping away from that character,” Dr. Acon explained. “They don’t have a way to walk away from there.
Breathing Free is not just Beethoven. It touches on everything from Negro Spirituals to an aria from the Life and Times of Malcolm X.
Dr. Acon, who is an artist, an activist, and a scholar on 19th Century Italian Opera, said people do not realize that opera has a history of giving voice to the most marginalized in society.
This is not a reimagining of the art. "Artivism" is in its DNA.
“This is something that is a true passion of mine,” he said. “I believe the art form deserves the ability to do what it does best and that is catalyze important sometimes difficult conversation about what it means to be a human being, about the human condition, about our respective roles in society. Art really has that power.”
To continue those conversations, each screening of Breathing Free will be followed by a panel discussion about themes related to incarceration. Opera is all about high stakes and Dr. Acon said this an issue where the stakes could not be higher.
“Mass incarcerations is one of the most insidious problems reflective of white supremacy culture, reflective of systemic structural historic racism,” Dr. Acon said. “If we are truly going to use what so many people consider to be the greatest art form to address what is the most pressing in our society, is the most monumental, what is the most needing our attention in society, this is definitely one or two on the list. If we are going to separate out systemic racism from mass incarceration, I might put systemic racism at the top.”
For Powell, who was released from prison following a COVID outbreak at the facility, being seen as a singer was a breath of fresh air.
“I think we tend to narrow the scope to prisoner or inmate or convict or felon, you get that one word label,” he explained. “Hopefully everybody pays attention to what Breathing Free is about and realize we are all just people.
Singing Beethoven did not make him forget his surroundings or give him a sense of freedom. Prisoners are hyperaware of the walls at all times, he said. However, it did give him a sense of community and camaraderie as well as a vital outlet for creativity.
“If you just sit in a cell there’s nothing to stimulate your mind,” he said. “How can it be your fault if you never change or you never grow or you or you never transform into something different? Art gives you that opportunity.”
He knows firsthand how art can change inmates. He hopes it can also change people’s perspective on them.