Opera News | by Alan Pendergast
Francesca Zambello, artistic and general director of the nearby Glimmerglass Festival, is passionate about bringing opera to nontraditional audiences—even if the effort sometimes takes her well out of her comfort zone. But in decades of opera and theater work, she had never undertaken anything quite as challenging as last summer’s journey, with several Glimmerglass cast members, to Attica, to perform selections from Verdi’s Macbeth for inmates. A documentary about the prison got her thinking about extending the nonprofit’s community outreach to new realms. “It’s not that far from us,” she says. “I wondered what it would be like if we brought opera to the biggest maximum-security prison in the state.”
Initially skeptical, prison officials soon warmed to the idea, which was green-lighted by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. Approval came with several daunting restrictions, based on security concerns. No costumes. No props. No microphones. No cell phones, jewelry or underwire bras. Security would also dictate the time allowed for the performance and the size of the audience—less than ten percent of Attica’s 2,200 inmates, selected from those whose good behavior had earned them the right to attend.
The clear choice among the 2015 Glimmerglass offerings was Macbeth, with its passionate music, compelling story and dark themes of betrayal and violence begetting violence. Given the limitations imposed by the venue, Zambello decided to bring only an electric piano, three singers—bass-baritone Eric Owens, soprano Melody Moore and bass Soloman Howard—and a bare-bones support crew . . .
Zambello (feeling “more nervous than I have ever felt”) welcomed the inmates and offered a brief introduction. “When I talked about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth making this very bad decision that would haunt them in ways they didn’t expect, there was an ominous air,” she says. “I could tell this really rang home for them” . . .
“These guys opened their mouths, and you could literally see jaws dropping,” Zambello says. The crowd clapped and cheered at the conclusion of the duet. Moore’s first aria, “Vieni! t’affretta!”—with only electric piano, played by Kevin Miller, for accompaniment—drew even more enthusiasm.
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