Introduction to Opera by Jonathan Franklin

November 4th, 2019

Fifteen miles from where I live, on the North Sea coast, sits a Category C Lifers prison, housing 240 men. It is beautiful, but remote and a long haul for family visits. For some years now, I’ve been going to bi-annual concerts to hear a group of residents perform songs they’ve written, of sadness, love and broken families. These grown men are expressing themselves, possibly for the first time. It is very moving and some of us in the audience rub our eyes.

A friend introduces me to Writer in Residence and Coordinator of Creative Arts in the prison, Julian. Julian is one of those people you seldom meet in life, devoted, cheerful and with a rare humility. He suggests that I come in and tell them the story of living on a ranch in Brazil. Like all fairy tales, my Brazilian dream was shattered by a betrayal of friendship, and I lost everything. Some of the men might identify with this tale of loss and despair.

The prison Governor says, ‘You never know what little thing said or done starts the new build not to reoffend.’

An ex-probation officer tells me that the overriding characteristic of a Lifer’s prison is boredom.

Over a cup of tea Julian and I discuss what more I might be able to do. He tells me that many of the man can’t read or write properly when they first arrive. I propose showing the film I shot in the heat and the rain, showing jungle, cattle and cowboys set to Brazilian popular music; I could accompany this with readings from my forthcoming novel set in the Amazon.

‘Great idea,’ says Julian.

For my first session, fifteen men turn up.

They ask me about the Amazon fires and the clearing of jungle before the sowing of soya and of grass for cattle.

So how long before the Amazon forest disappears altogether?

I tell them how the dark and noises spooked me that first night, when I slung a hammock between two trees.

They laugh.

One gives me a poem he has written.

‘It’s about me,’ he says; parents from the Congo, one bed flat in London’s East End, bullied at school, leaves early, joins a gang.

No listening to Bach; no lessons in History and French.

I ask him what he does with his time. He says that he’s reading every poem and novel written in the English language since 1500.

‘That’ll take you a while, won’t it?’ I say.

He smiles ruefully.

‘Not half as long as I’m in here for.’

We shake hands and I wish him well with Shakespeare and Conrad.

Over a cup of tea Julian and I discuss what more I might be able to do. I suggest opera as storytelling set to music: I’m passionate about Handel, Mozart, Britten and the later Wagner; I could put together a programme of music that might help them in preparation for release into the community.

I ask one of the singer residents what he thinks of the opera idea.

‘Mate, you can forget Tosca and Carmen,’ he says. ‘Too many knives and guns.’

For inspiration, I go to the exhibition, Opera; Passion, Power and Politics at the V&A. Monteverdi, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner. What a list. I decide to title my programme Introduction to Opera. Julian suggests six hourly evening sessions on a Monday starting in January. For the first session, I create a DVD to show music as the premise for storytelling, starting with pop songs, then musicals and finally opera. I include Eminem, The House of the Rising Sun, Tracy Chapman’s Sorry, Kate Bush and Wuthering Heights, two songs each from Oliver and West Side Story; I compare Leonard Cohen’s Alleluiah with Handel’s and the scene from Shawshank Redemption when Tim Robbins plays Susannah and the Countess’s duet from Figaro to the prisoners in the yard; I will have to play them Carmen’s flirtatious Habanera, and can finish off with the helicopters in Apocalypse Now and the shrieking Valkyries as they prepare to drop napalm.

Julian tells me that there will be lots of questions but if I don’t know the answer, then say so.

They can spot a phoney a mile off.

On the morning of my first session, it’s snowing. My wife has decided to come with me. The wheels skid from side to side. I lean close to the windscreen, trying to keep the car straight. I am anxious not to be late. We arrive fifteen minutes early. Over the entrance door, in large letters read the words, HOPE – PROGRESSION – REHABILITATION. We show our passports.


Julian meets us with a trolley. Buffeted by a freezing easterly wind, we load up with cables and boxes, I keep the snow off my precious amplifier with a rug, and we push the trolley through the entrance doors that clunk behind us. Two prison officers very politely search us. They take the packet of sweets from my wife that she’s brought to boost our energy. A guard unlocks two heavy gates and we slip and slide our way across an empty snow-covered yard topped by barbed wire. Light comes from streetlamps and narrow cell windows.

Finally, we are in Room 4 set out like a classroom with desks, computers and a screen at one end.

Posters on the wall encourage keeping clean, good food values and the use of contraception.

I have twenty minutes to connect my projector. Julian tells me not to be late as the residents like punctuality; their lives are run on routine. I strip to shirt sleeves and drink a large glass of water. I check the first minute of my precious DVD. The sound from the speakers is terrific. Eminem looks good, definitely contemporary. I’m feeling confident that my show will engage. Nine residents come in, aged from mid 20’s to late 50’s. We shake hands and I ask their names; Jo, Kevin, Mick, Kieran, Johnny, Josh. There is much chatting and banter. Julian introduces me. I can’t help a slight stammer as I explain that tonight is a taster. I encourage them to ask questions.

Lights off. I switch on.

Eminem raps back and forth. At the end of the Kate Bush, Kieran (the youngest), demands, ‘Why d’you show us Eminem?’

His tone is aggressive. I am stuck for an answer.

My wife comes to the rescue by saying that rap is story telling. Clearly Kieran feels patronised.

During the duet from the Marriage of Figaro, Paul says loudly, ‘I knew you’d show us that.’

How stupid of me.

I should have known that The Shaw Shank Redemption is their favourite movie. I break out in a cold sweat. When, Food Glorious Food comes on they all stop chatting and watch, maybe comparing their own food to Oliver’s gruel. To my surprise, they prefer Handel’s Allelulia to Leonard Cohen’s; he’s too old. Conversation starts up again during the two West Side Story songs. No sympathy for the feuding gangs then. When Carmen sings her Habanera and lifts her skirts, they men are rivetted. But they are not particularly impressed by the helicopters in Apocalypse Now. One resident leaves to make a telephone call, another to have a shower.

Arms go up.

Why do you like opera?

Are there any black opera singers? Yes, Jesse Norman, Simon Estes to name just two.

At the end there are only five men left.

I ask if they’d like to carry on in a fortnight?

Yes, please. Johnny nods his head vigorously saying that his father used to play opera and that he could listen to it all day.

I suggest that next time we look at extracts from the two Mozart greats, The Marriage of Figaroand The Magic Flute and then choose which one to watch all the way through and discuss as we go along.

No knives or guns in those.

Driving home, snowflakes whirling across the headlights and the wipers working hard, we analyse the reactions of the men. Julian said it was a success and that we had treated the men like real people and that’s what matters. A compliment? I’m not so sure. But it must be important for them to see people from the outside world, proving that they’re not forgotten.

For the second session, I choose two songs from each of the recordings of Figaro and the Magic Flute. Admitting to myself that I do care, I am bitterly disappointed when only three men turn up. Julian says that this is quite normal and not to worry as residents don’t look at prison advertising very closely. I wonder whether it is all worthwhile.

Jo leaves saying he has his parole meeting tomorrow.

Now we’re down to two. Mick talks at length to my wife. He recites poems to her, one of which he wrote in hospital after he’d been stabbed. He says he loves music and wants to learn more about classical music and opera. We begin with Figaro’s and Suzannah’s first duet. Halfway through, the prison’s rock band practice session starts up next door. To compete with the banging of the drums and the yelling of voices, I turn up the volume.

Everyone laughs.

I am beginning to understand that they want me to lead them into a world where they can escape and discover something new, so nothing better than the Magic Flute.

Mick and Johnny ask some seriously good questions, how did Mozart compose? how is music written? when did opera begin?

I promise to bring sample score sheets and that next time we’ll go through the beginnings of opera from Monteverdi to the present day.

I have to cancel the third session.

Arriving a week late, Johnny asks why I hadn’t come the Monday before and how disappointed he’d been. I mumble some apology but am secretly pleased that he cares. Josh, whom I had met at one of the Sing Song concerts comes bouncing in. Tall, rangy and dressed in shorts and trainers (as if about to run a marathon), he shakes hands but says he can’t stay as he has to go to a meeting regarding his release. I congratulate him.

‘About time too after thirty years,’ he says

I don’t know what to reply.

For the first act of The Magic Flute, I show them the score that belonged to Imogen Holst. I give each of them a photo of a portrait of Mozart and an illustration of a typical orchestra layout with the instrument positions.

We imagine and discuss the sound of each instrument.

‘Music has a direct effect on the human nervous system.’ I quote Stephen Hawkins.

‘When it is sublime, it can draw you into a world of magic with a transfiguring power so sometimes you can come out thinking differently,’ I say.

We discuss the meaning of sublime.

I describe how Mozart was attracted to the philosophy of Freemasonry, that he and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder joined a masonic lodge, which forms the sub-text of The Magic Flute.

‘I thought Freemasonry was a sex club,’ says Jo.

Mick asks, ‘How long does it take to learn to sing like that?’

‘Years.’ I reply.

The three boys sing, ‘Be steady. Be patient.’

I rewind and show it to them again.

When Johnny hears Papageno, he declares loudly that he wants to sing opera and how are we going to arrange that?

By now the three regulars insist they want to see more operas. Later Julian says Tosca and Carmen should be all right.

We agree to go away and think.

I don’t want to let Johnny down.