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By Pierpaolo Polzonetti
When Bard College asked me to teach a three-hour class on Haydn’s Creation at Eastern Correctional Facility, I did not know what to expect. I accepted out of curiosity. Eastern Correctional Facility is a massive neo-gothic maximum-security prison built in 1900 in rural New York. Crossing into the prison’s mighty walls and passing through the security checkpoint can be intimidating. Encountering the incarcerated students has an even more powerful effect, but in a positive way. To me these men seemed to have dissolved the prison walls, thanks to their intellectual curiosity and their eagerness to learn. They opened their minds and ears to music that sounded exotic to many of them. Eighteenth-Century oratorios and operas can appear meaningless or dull to listeners mostly accustomed to the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music. Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual. Fortunately they had already carefully read the texts I had assigned, including passages from Milton, Ovid, and the book of Genesis. This allowed us to engage with Haydn’s Creation on the basis of a shared intellectual background that made the oratorio somehow familiar and approachable.
The experience was so enlightening that I decided to teach an entire opera history class for inmates entitled “Opera and Ideas.” I taught it at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana during the Fall semester of 2014.
Thus far, most of the debate on education in prison has focused primarily on the issue of whether it is ethical to make educational opportunities available to criminals. Many people resent the idea of a free education being offered to offenders while it is being denied to honest taxpayers. Advocates of educational programs have therefore conducted statistical studies to deploy data proving that education initiatives in prison are good for society at large. The most recurrent argument can be summarized this way: considering that a person in prison spends tax money, while a person out of prison, when employed, pays taxes, education for prisoner, as long as it is not heavily funded by tax money, is cost effective because it reduces recidivism and helps ex-prisoners find jobs. In 1764 Cesare Beccaria, in his influential book Crimes and Punishments, addressed this issue in equally rational, but simpler and less materialistic terms. Beccaria wrote, “the most difficult but also most effective method to prevent crime is to perfect education.” To explain why he takes this position, he refers to Rousseau’s Emile, claiming that education has the power to “lead to virtue through the easy road of feelings” (“spingere alla virtù per la facile strada del sentimento”).
|A page from the manuscript of Mozart's Don Giovanni.|
The humanistic study of opera (or music in general) may not provide job opportunities to ex-offenders but it may be more effective than computer science or economics to help former criminals understand – and therefore control – human emotions, and to reflect on ethical issues. Lorenzo Bianconi, in his essay “La forma musicale come scuola dei sentimenti,” writes that “the secret of vitality and longevity of opera is that it has represented a powerful school of feelings.” But musical forms do convey feelings with immediacy only when understood, structurally, historically, and contextually. To make them work one needs to know how they work. To help people figure this out should be an important mission of professional musicologists.
When Don Giovanni entered Westville Correctional Facility during my opera class, the prisoners gave him a very warm welcome. Their previous study of Metastasian opera equipped them with a powerful tool for understanding the differences, similarities, and influences between opera buffa and opera seria. For example, when confronting Donna Elvira’s entrance aria, “Ah chi mi dice mai,” the students were able to detect similarities with rage arias in heroic opera. However, the presence of interjections and asides by Leporello and Don Giovanni, seemed to them to belong to a different genre, for seria arias are typically impenetrable to other characters who can only listen to them in silence. Compared to rage aria in Giulio Cesare this one also displays a limited amount of coloratura. One man commented that we are supposed to laugh at the betrayed stupid woman in the presence of her cunning seducer. A second student, an African-American man with a long beard, immediately pointed his finger at the first, shouting that it is never funny when a woman suffers. “Never!” he repeated three times in a frightening crescendo.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni gave these students a chance to better understand real-life emotions that, when repressed or out of control, can be destructive: fear and fearlessness, guilt and remorselessness, sexual passion leading to compulsion, sexual abuse, even to rape and murder. It became obvious to all of us, all the more so in prison, that our world is full of Don Giovannis. There is no other place than prison where, even when played through small portable speakers, his hymn “Viva la libertà!” resounds with more power than in an opera theater, amplified by emotions that can break the heart, but heal the mind.
NB: A longer version of this text will be published in Musica docta vol. 6, in production.
Pierpaolo Polzonetti specializes on opera and eighteenth-century music. He is the recipient of the AMS Lockwood book award and the Slim and Einstein article awards.