Macbeth in Attica
The Glimmerglass Festival brings music behind bars.
by Alan Prendergast • illustration by Nigel Buchanan.
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
COMPLETED IN 1931 AND INFAMOUS for the 1971 riot that claimed forty-three lives, the Attica Correctional Facility in New York State’s Wyoming County houses some of the most violent and disruptive prisoners in the New York corrections system; many of its inmates are serving life sentences. It’s not a place where voices are often raised in song.
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.
For Howard, who was raised in poverty and occasional homelessness in the heart of Washington, D.C., the prospect of performing in a prison in which more than half the population is African–American had a particular resonance. “I grew up around gangs,” he says. “I’ve had friends who went to prison. Some I’ve lost contact with, because they were facing hard time. They go in, and they’re forgotten about. This was a time to say, ‘We’re here for you.’”
AFTER MONTHS OF PLANNING, paperwork and background checks, the troupe finally arrived at Attica one sunny August afternoon. The drive from Cooperstown had taken more than three hours; getting inside required another ninety minutes of waiting and passing security checks. The group was escorted through “Times Square,” the central command area at the intersection of the four wings of the prison, and into a chapel, part of which is used as a mess hall. The audience filed in slowly, cellblock by cellblock, under heavy guard.
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.”
HOWARD AND OWENS TOOK THE STAGE for the first selection, the duet of Banquo and Macbeth, responding to the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will be king. From the opening notes, Zambello knew things were going better than she could have hoped; the spectacle of two powerful African–American men singing thunderously in Italian was greeted with hushed astonishment. “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. “That’s potentially the hardest audience to please,” Howard says, “but it was one of the best audiences we’ve ever performed for.”
The charged atmosphere persisted to the end. When it was over, more than half of the audience leapt to their feet for a standing ovation—and then immediately sat back down. “They’re not allowed to stand up and move without being told to do so,” Zambello notes. “It really makes you realize what the loss of freedom feels like.”
A discussion period that followed revealed that the inmates weren’t as unschooled as outsiders might assume: one prisoner wanted to know what the cast thought about the theory that some plays credited to Shakespeare are actually the work of the Earl of Oxford. When Howard said that music had helped to take him out of “the hood” in D.C., the men applauded.
“I told them that I could have been running the streets and getting into all kinds of trouble, but music is what saved me,” Howard says. “Getting out and seeing the world, seeing different ways of living, gave me a broader perspective. It was my ticket out. ”
The audience lobbied for an encore, and Howard responded with an a cappella rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” Then the troupe was escorted out, shaking the outstretched hands of inmates along the way.
What began as an experiment left an indelible impression. “This was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in a theatrical situation,” Zambello says. “Unbelievably scary and unbelievably bleak. But I’m excited to do it again.”
Days after the trip to Attica, a request for a return arrived at Glimmerglass from prison officials. Excerpts from La Bohème are slated for this summer. This time there will be four performers—and costumes.
is a staff writer for Westword who writes frequently on corrections issues.