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SAN FRANCISCO — Opera is for everyone. Cole Thomason-Redus, a program manager in the San Francisco Opera’s Department of Diversity, Equity, and Community, firmly believes this. At the beginning of 2020, he had been working on a project to bring opera to prisons. He had hoped to schedule a few workshops with students in the prison to discuss the characters, their actions and motives, and how the music conveys their emotions. COVID-19 forced him to shelf that plan. But then the San Francisco Opera’s marketing manager asked if Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, which is set in a prison, could be streamed into all California prisons. 

Thomason-Redus knew the logistics would be difficult. Instead, he contacted Carol Newborg, the program manager at San Quentin’s Prison Arts Project, who loved his idea of having artists from the program create work to put in the opera house lobby during the production, as well as on the opera’s website. 

Fidelio tells the story of a man wrongfully imprisoned and the woman who disguises herself in order to enter the prison and save him. (“To Break Free, She Had to Break In” is the San Francisco Opera’s cinematic tagline.) Thomason-Redus felt that incarcerated people might relate to the opera, not only because of its story, but also because Beethoven, unlike many composers of his day, rejected the monarchy and aristocracy. Beethoven struggled with his compositions (as opposed to, say, the child prodigy Mozart), and had an alcoholic father who beat him, which may have caused the composer’s deafness later in life. 

Omid Mokri, “Cruel and Unjust Punishment” (photo by Peter Merts)

Seeing the artwork of incarcerated people exhibited in the opera house lobby exceeded Thomason-Redus’s hopes. “It’s so thoughtful and powerful and creative and expressive,” he exclaimed. “Some notion was discussed about putting barbed wire on the opera wall. That’s not necessary — look at any of these images, and you immediately get what this is about.” 

A group of around 250 people attending an upcoming performance will include participants in programs that serve imprisoned people and their families as well as arts programs for students. Artists from the Prison Arts Project who are no longer incarcerated will also come to the opera. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing inclusivity in an institution not known for it,” Thomason-Redus noted. 

Isiah Daniels, who now lives in San Jose and works as a concrete finisher at the Google plant, will be there, standing by his painting, “Old Folsom (My Abyss),” during the intermission. 

“Do you think I’m going to miss that?” he asked. “I want to feel the buzz. I want to experience something I never have before.”

Isiah Daniels, “Old Folsom (My Abyss)” (photo by Isiah Daniels)

Daniels, now a board member of California Arts in Corrections, said the class gave him a secure place to be vulnerable: “If I had not learned how to express myself, I don’t think I would have gotten out. Our emotions are how we deal with the world.”

Newborg has seen over and over how participants in the class gain more self-awareness. “Art can be pretty essential for healing and a way [people] can access part of themselves and abilities they didn’t know they had,” she related. “Access to arts, especially in a horrible, limited environment like prison, can really help people grow.”

Newborg added that this project came at a particularly good time, since in-person classes had just resumed after switching to correspondence during COVID-19 quarantines.

Thomas Tongpalan, whose painting of San Quentin’s baseball field, “American Pastime,” will hang in the opera house lobby, also felt the request for art about freedom and imprisonment came at the perfect time. He’s been painting and drawing San Quentin for more than a year, unsure whether anyone outside of his class would ever see his art. 

Thomas Tongpalan, “American Pastime” (courtesy San Francisco Opera)

“Now I’m going to show some of this work to people that are going to an opera and the opera happens to be about prison,” he said in a recording that was broadcast on the San Francisco Opera’s podcast. “I couldn’t believe how serendipitous it was. I guess the universe will work in ways to make things happen.”

The director of Fidelio, Matthew Ozawa, believes that having the art in the lobby can deepen everyone’s experience: “Art is a form of expression and freedom. […] The fact that the opera house is broadening its scope I think is wonderful.”

Ozawa’s father was born in a detention camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming — one of 10 centers where 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, and the opera means a lot to him for both its portrayal of the horrors of imprisonment and its message of hope. 

“I’m struck by many contemporary resonances with families separated and held at the border and activists and whistleblowers across the globe being detained,” he said. “This opera reminds us that individuals and communities can ignite change through our actions.”

Fidelio, directed by Matthew Ozawa, runs at the San Francisco Opera (301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, California) through October 30.

We Shall Be Free, We Shall Find Peace: An exhibition of art by incarcerated persons at San Quentin State Prison is on view in the main lobby of the San Francisco Opera and online. The exhibition is presented in partnership with the William James Association.

The Commonwealth Club of California will host an online live-streamed discussion with the William James Association and formerly incarcerated artists, moderated by Cole Thomason-Redus, on October 25.

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