‘Mozart behind bars’ breathtaking project
Iconsider myself lucky because from an early age I had the opportunity to travel the world, but surprisingly until now I have not visited one of the countries which I like most — Portugal. Thinking of Portugal, a trip to Lisbon is top of my priorities.
Portugal is a beautiful country with a long and rich history, architecture, culture, picturesque with its sea and mountain landscapes, delicious food and drinks, but a bit mysterious homeland to ‘Fado’, the only very special kind of music in Portugal,.
Fado in Portuguese means ‘the fate’, ‘destiny’. The history of Portugal is long, but not so much the history of Fado. This music took the stage in the 19th century in the harbor and the poor suburbs of port cities especially its capital Lisbon.
Fado is a melancholic song sung by a single singer to the accompaniment of two guitars — the most classical Portuguese guitars with twelve strings. One of its kinds, the Coimbra accepts only male singers but Lisbon female singers are not only accepted they are the first in the history and the greatest Fado interpreter was Maria Severa and Amalie Rodrigues went on to earn the title of Fado Queen.
However during my planned trip the places I would like to visit include the city and the district of Leiria, which lies at the center of Portugal off the Atlantic Coast. The region was occupied by Visigoths and then by the Moors until 1135 when it was captured by the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, during the so-called ‘Reconquista’.
He built the impressive castle on the dominating hill and protected the downtown city with walls. In the late 14th century King John I built behind these walls a beautiful Royal Palace with elegant gothic galleries that offered wonderful views of the town and surrounding landscape. The monuments were carefully rebuilt in the 20th century which these days attracted a lot of tourists.
However maybe I would also want to visit the prison. This institution became famous in music circles because of ‘Mozart behind bars’. At Leiria’s prison more than two hundred inhabitants have settled down. This is the only Portuguese prison for juvenile criminals, for those between 16 and 25. Many of them were imprisoned for committing serious crimes — murders or armed robberies. As per the law, since they had been sentenced for long terms, they couldn’t be forced to work or do any other errands. Without any consequence they could even refuse to take part in any sports or cultural activities.
Having said this, what it got to do with Mozart? He was neither a criminal nor a juvenile, or a Portuguese citizen and had not even lived there. My apologies, the last statement is not true. It looks like he is a living legend, active and attractive. One fourth of the prisoners had offered to take part in the unique world scale project — the production of Mozart’s Opera, Don Giovanni from behind the bars.
From the time of preparation to presentation it took two years. From the fifty candidates who applied to take part only thirty most talented were chosen for the (musical). The Director of the Project, a young musician — composer and conductor — Paulo Lameiro from the Sociedade Artistica & Musical dos Pousos (SAMP) says his prison stars are better singers than those winning competitions during TV shows. He even confessed that the success was very easy. During the first two rehearsals two prisoners escaped. (They were caught within the next few days.)
The biggest problem was studying the roles. Most of the prisoners were illiterate or descendants of migrants from The Green Islands speaking very little Portuguese (not to mention the inability to read). In such a situation the singing actors presented their texts in Portuguese, Creole, French, a little English or even in Italian — the original language the Opera written by Mozart.
The idea of putting on a Mozart Opera with untrained singers in a prison was ridiculous. The technical demands of the music were huge: the participants had no experience of staging musical theatre, or the language of opera: the facilities were negligible, the security immense and the politics fraught.
The list of what could go wrong was very long and the risk taken by those inmates who took part was largely incalculable. It is a tribute to the courage, imagination and professional abilities of the Project Director Paulo Lameiro, and his SAMP that all those traps were avoided on the road to this performance. Also the openness of the Prison Service and those involved in the project Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation should be highly recognized.
Months of workshops and rehearsals enabled the participants to build their vocal skills to sing together such roles as that of Leporello, amoral Don Giovanni’s servant. Some men even took on solos within the choral group. The staging, in modern dress, was brilliantly imagined to make the site’s limitation part of the experience.
The audience entered through a redundant ceramics workshop, whose darkness evoked the hell to which Don Giovanni was destined. (Is it any analogy with the situation of artistes?) Dissonant wails of brass, and writhing figures created an unsettling atmosphere reminiscent to it.
Except that the inmates in the production took part as professional singers, students of music schools and ... the Director of the Youth Prison and the Chief of Guards. The latter performed the title role of Don Giovanni. On the stage he appeared with his professional arms and ‘killed’ the Director, who performed the role of Commodore.
On the day of the performance the place was packed. Two or three hundred people were crammed into one end of the hall: some of them had to stand for more than two hours and between them there was an improvised stage and a chamber orchestra playing a rhythmic, repetitive melody underpinning a riveting rap by thirty inmates who had just sung Mozart.
The music built insistently as they handed microphones to one another, moving with the beat and savoring this moment that cemented their two-hour performance. A couple of young men had children on their shoulders, because wives and girlfriends were allowed to join them on the stage.
There was a strange joyfulness, hard won and attenuated by suffering. Right now hope was strong, for these men, their families and for societies in need of reconciliation. One man waved a flag with the word ‘Liberdade’ (‘Freedom’). With the performance’s climax came a roar of applause and everyone was on their feet. “Breathtaking ... Unforgettable ... ’, was how one journalist summed it up.
In the 1990s Fado faced an era if its renaissance around Europe and all the world but almost only in its original, Portugal version and performers. The exception was only Japan where a handful of artists are performing Fado in Japanese! Maybe the only exception for that exception in the entire world is a talented Dutch artiste, Nynke Laverman who has recorded a CD with Fado in ... Frisian (co-official language used by circa — half of million people of the Friesland province). In the 21st century, on Nov 27, 2011 UNESCO crowned the Renaissance of Fado and ranked on the List of World Heritage.
I do not know of other unique achievements of the Portuguese at any time but the appreciation I found which is worthy of sharing it with you. What an influence this re-socializing project had on the inmates will be seen after months and/or after some research is done in this regard.
However from the beginning of the project the duration of behavioral sentence has dropped by 70 percent. Twenty-year-old Luis who has already served three-and-a-half years says: ‘The Opera helps me forget that I am behind bars.’ His companion, Mauro says: ‘When I am singing, I forget about time, I sleep and live better, but when I am singing I feel free!’
It looks like Mozart was a Great Magician, not only as an author of Magic Flute? Or is it that music is just magic?
Editor’s Note: Cezary Owerkowicz is the chairman of the Kuwait Chamber of Philharmonia and talented pianist. He regularly organises concerts by well-known musicians for the benefit of music lovers and to widen the knowledge of music in Kuwait. His e-mail address is: cowerkowicz @ yahoo.com and cowerkowicz@ hotmail.com