La bohème, live at Attica State Correctional Facility.
Opera audiences are all the same. There are always two bald guys seated in the third row, whispering a phrase-by-phrase critique. Someone cups his ear, frustrated by the hall’s faulty acoustics. Everyone looks daggers at the miscreant whose phone interrupts an aria. And some listeners sit with their hands folded under their chins, eyes half-closed in reverie. One man perches literally on the edge of his seat, listening with his whole body; his chest seems to swell with the singers’ every breath. Afterward, I’m not surprised when he says that, before today, “I didn’t know that Latinos do opera,” but “for a brief fifteen minutes, I was up there, I was singing.”
On August 2, performers from the Glimmerglass Festival, the summer opera festival based in upstate Cooperstown, New York, hit the road for a one-hour matinee of excerpts from Giacomo Puccini’s lush, popular opera about Parisian artists, friends, and lovers, La bohème (1896). The cast waited onstage, in costume, while an audience numbering about 150 took their seats: emerging from the cellblocks, they’d walked, in double rows, in groups of no more than forty, through several barred gates into the hall. Officers armed with batons ringed their seats, forming a standing-room only section. At the conclusion of the concert, when inmates leapt to their feet for a standing ovation, two officers shifted closer together, eyeing them: the ones who’d risen sat down immediately. We were at Attica State Correctional Facility.
In 1971, an uprising of prisoners at this maximum-security prison was quelled when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered in hundreds of state troopers. They shot on the crowds, killing thirty-nine people—several employees and many more incarcerated—and injuring hundreds more. But last Tuesday, Attica Superintendent Dale Artus had more recent history in mind.
“In the past three years, a lot of things have happened here. A lot of bad things, obviously. But I’d like to think a lot of good things, too.” Among the “good things” he counted the Glimmerglass visits, inaugurated the previous summer. “Bad things” might have been a reference to prison officers’ brutality against inmates. Reporting on one unusually visible case that went to trial in 2015, Tom Robbins of The Marshall Project quoted Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director of the Correctional Association of New York, which inspects state prisons: “What struck me when I walked the tiers of Attica was that every person, bar none, talked about how the guards were brutalizing them.” Even Brian Fischer, formerly the state corrections chief, conceded that Attica should be closed: “Given the history of it, we’d probably be better off if we did.”
Once, at a Metropolitan Opera performance of La sonnambula, I saw one opera fan slap another for rustling a bag of cough drops. Nothing like that happened in the Attica chapel-turned-mess-hall where Glimmerglass performed. Nobody coughed. Nobody booed. If anybody was disturbed by the sound of gates clanging shut over and over during the performance, no one showed it. A lawyer and friend of the company told me that eighty-five years ago, “This space was built for art, but the theories of incarceration have changed … Maybe this will open the doors to some other programs.”
The Glimmerglass visits were organized under the leadership of Dr. Teresa A. Miller, Vice Provost at SUNY Buffalo School of Law, filmmaker (Encountering Attica, 2009), and volunteer with Attica’s Lifers Organization. According to Dr. Miller, Mr. Artus “is a visionary among the rank and file of correctional administrators. He immediately embraced the idea of opera and Attica, and saw the transformative potential for both inmates and correctional officers.”
But why La bohème? Unlike two other Glimmerglass shows this season—Robert Ward’s The Crucible and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd—La bohème has nothing to do with justice. There’s no hint of resemblance between Rodolfo’s “happy poverty” and the 1971 Attica Prison Liberation Faction’s demands for drinking water, toilet paper, and fair, safe, paid labor. Colline’s overcoat aria can’t speak to the moment when I watched a staffer process the bag of parole clothes—shirt, socks, boxers—a visitor had brought for a loved one.
Maybe La bohème’s great merit is that there’s nothing didactic or constructive about it. It doesn’t presume to represent the inner lives of an imprisoned audience, or to solicit their validation. The ruling classes have a long, ambiguous history with institutional art, including opera programs: as Professor Aurélie Vialette writes, Richard Wagner’s music was first introduced to nineteenth-century Spain for a workers’ chorus performance of Tannhäuser excerpts. Were such programs meant for workers’ edification, or gratification for the bourgeoisie? A shift in control of cultural capital, or the channeling of revolutionary impulse into art appreciation?
“I feel that the performing arts are essential to rehabilitation,” one of the audience told me, mentioning the work of the poet and actor Michael Rhynes, who’s trying to start an Attica theater group, like the Phoenix Players Theatre Group he co-founded at Auburn Correctional Facility. Rhynes has written, “One of the reasons I created PPTG is because we’re not allowed to have any input into our own transformation … I don’t believe people from outside of any situation should come in to solve problems without conferring with the people who are affected by what’s going on in that particular situation.”
It’s not inconsistent to state that rehabilitation is both crucial and desperately underfunded, and also to question who controls its discourses. What I hope is that, in the space allowed by La bohème’s apolitical, melodramatic, sublimely indulgent irrelevance, the audience might choose to feel only enjoyment. Or indifference. Or they might take a little nap. Or even, possibly, resent the opera’s glorification of artistic and emotional freedom, before a roomful of people imprisoned for life. The freedom not to like an opera is, judging from booing culture, the most strenuously exercised privilege at the Met. And art has no value in any institution unless it encourages the profoundly idiosyncratic, private responses that any people, anywhere, might choose to feel. But those responses also include curiosity. Generosity. And enthusiasm and encouragement.
I know nothing about life in prison, but I do know opera fans when I see them. After “Mi chiamano Mimì,” one man rocked back in his seat, saying magisterially, “Bravo. Bravo!” When Glimmerglass’ General Director, Francesca Zambello, explained Rodolfo’s despair that his poverty had exacerbated Mimì’s illness, several people nodded vigorously. One very young man who’d been whispering the whole time to a friend, seemingly paying no attention, stole the Q&A with his analysis of the singers’ character development. Opera audiences are all the same, except that some are kinder and more engaged than others, and this was one of them.
There’s a moment in Mimì’s renunciation (recording by Leontyne Price, 1971) of Rodolfo—“Bada, sotto il guanciale/ C’è la cuffietta rosa”—that sounds like the distillation of all regret, grief, love, and loss. A caress touching your own face for the last time, making you shiver. In the film Moonstruck, those lines move the opera skeptic to tears. A cinematic cliché, maybe—but at Attica, when soprano Raquel González sang the lines, a tremor ran through the audience.
I visited Attica thinking about the words of a former cop, Frank Serpico, who blew the whistle on NYPD corruption in the 1960s and survived a retaliatory shooting. He’d written to me, “Opera was always an escape from reality, making it more bearably onstage.” Opera matters not because it’s classier or more moral or constructive than any other art form, but because all art exists to make life more bearable. Because someone wants and needs opera, finding it a relief, a joy, a conundrum, an essential beauty—a reason to want to be part of the world.
When a singer’s voice starts to ascend a high note, sometimes the listener’s hand, palm facing up, also swoops high. As tenor Chaz’men Williams–Ali sang “Che gelida manina,” the man sitting directly in front of me lifted his hand that way, as if his gesture, his appreciation, could help buoy the singer toward the skies. The word that soared was “speranza.” Hope.
La bohème plays at the Glimmerglass Festival through August 27 in Cooperstown, NY.
This is Alison Kinney’s second piece for Songs to the Moon, an exploration of fandom and how the music, art, and artifacts of opera transform cultures and desires. Alison is the author of Hood and a columnist for the Daily. Her writing has appeared online at Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, The Atlantic, Hyperallergic, New Republic, The New Inquiry, The Mantle, VAN Magazine, and The New York Times.