This is special

In the dusty hall of a disused prison workshop, 30 people shuffle into a big circle. Silence falls. They draw breath slowly, deep into their lungs, release it, go again, summoning the spirits of concentration, art, hope.

They have little in common, except what they have made together. Two thirds are young men, serving terms of imprisonment. Others are musicians, teachers, opera singers. Their life experiences and cultures could hardly be more different, and yet all come from the same society that is modern Portugal, modern Europe. 

After this gathering ritual, I watch them work. They don’t have long. Two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon is all the timetable allows, so every minute matters. And none is wasted. Leaving their trainers in a tidy line in the dust, they move swiftly onto the two low, white stages where the action unfolds. One for Ulysses, one for Penelope, separated by a metre of old concrete floor and a decade of uncertainty, by loss, by hope, by their own choices. 

They move, sing, speak and beatbox their way through five of the opera’s six scenes before the curtain falls on their rehearsal time. I’ve watched many rehearsals over the years, but I don’t remember one with so little waste, despite the energy fizzing in some of the young men, especially those who joined the project recently and are not yet used to artistic work. Time, attention, creativity—all are treated like precious resources, even by those who might not understand why. 

This is serious art, made with serious intent. Private suffering has passed through myth to become a universal story of separation and searching, doubt and restoration. In the slow uncertain recovery from the pandemic, the result is more resonant than I had guessed: truly, a lockdown opera.

A pianist provides accompaniment throughout the morning. The first rehearsal with the Gulbenkian Orchestra is that afternoon, remotely by video link. During the lunch break, six inmates, the four soloists and the stage director travel 150 kilometres from Leiria to Lisbon, to sing with the orchestra for the first time. We watch them on screens, the orchestra’s musical power undiminished by its digital mediation.

The chorus perform their parts to camera from the prison. They can see the orchestra in the concert hall, but cannot hear them when they perform: there are still things to solve with the Co-Creation Stage technology making the connection. I see how, their performance has sharpened since the morning: tight and confident, it too crackles with power. 

Then, too soon, it’s 4.30pm. Here , the timetable is king. Handshakes and thanks all round, and they walk back to the blocks, the evening meal, and a long night.

Tomorrow–today, as I write this—is the dress rehearsal. The orchestra will be here, in the old workshop. So will some of the detainees’ families. On Friday, is the première, when the opera will be performed for everyone in the prison. On Saturday, it’s the first performance for guests. Two weeks after that, there will be public performances in Lisbon, linked digitally with Leiria. I will see them all, and I do not think I will have seen anything better, more valuable or more important. 

Something extraordinary is happening here.