Last week, I sat down with my friend Arlene Goldbard to record the latest episode of our podcast, “A Culture of Possibility”. This one was a bit different because, as Arlene explains below, the conversation was about work that I’ve been part of—the Traction opera co-created by SAMP with inmates in Leiria which had its premiere last month. My task was to provide some context about the project, especially for listeners who were not familiar with it or with the arts in Portugal. The principal guests were David Ramy and Bruno Homem, two of the musicians who led the project for SAMP, and they spoke movingly about the experience. The podcast itself is available today on Stitcher, iTunes, and other platforms, including the miaaw.net website. Here, to introduce the episode, is Arlene’s perspective.
Photo © 2022 Gil de Lemos/SAMP
Guest Post from Arlene Goldbard
This episode actually features three interviewees because it focuses on a project that is part of Traction, “opera co-creation for social transformation,” where François has a professional role. He explained that “Traction is a research project funded by the European Commission through the Horizon program. There are European cultural projects which are about cultural exchange and coproduction between artists in different countries. But this is different because the funding is intended to develop knowledge; the project is about trying to find ways of making opera more socially inclusive, and to ensure that it can modernize and respond to the diverse and complex society that Europe is today. A key part of that is the development of digital technologies, particularly a platform called Co-creation Stage which was very much used as part of the SAMP opera.” The podcast focuses on one of three current Traction projects; the other two are at the Irish National Opera and the Liceu Opera Barcelona.
For the podcast, we’re joined by David Ramy and Bruno Homem, who work with SAMP, The Sociedade Artística Musical dos Pousos, an independent music school in Pousos, a village near Leiria, a small city in the central region of Portugal. They tell us how they worked with young inmates, their families, the cutting-edge technology of the Co-Creation Stage, and a great range of artistic collaborators to make a powerful new community opera, the third Traction project, “O tempo (Somos Nós)” Time (As We Are), and what may come from it.
Bruno explained that SAMP was started 150 years ago by a wealthy landowner, Baron de Viamonte, as way for workers to play music in their off time, evolving into a conservatory and civic orchestra. Thirty years ago, the School of Arts was established, with music as a focus but other art forms taught as well. All ages participate, “So we start our project in the school with the birth of the child; also, we have courses for the pregnant women so they can start inside of their mothers. We learn a lot of things watching babies learning, and we can put them to work with other people, with inmates, it’s the same rules. It’s an important thing that the School of Arts works with babies and also with young musicians who aspire to be professional musicians. All of this happens in the same house, with all the other projects that we do.”
We asked Bruno to describe his own path into the work. He came out of university where he studied to be a musician and saxophone teacher. He started at SAMP observing and learning from classes, and branched out to work in prisons, with elders, and in hospitals, and that changed his idea of what he could do as a musician.
François interjected here to say how impressed he has been. “I’ve rarely seen people whose work is so motivated by a deep humanism,” and whose “standards of quality are the highest that you could imagine, always in service of relationship with people…. Across Portugal, there are 40 or 50 similar local music schools who are introducing children and young people to music and forming the next generation. Funding from the Ministry of Education enables that to happen. What makes this so different to most of the other schools is the work that Bruno was just talking about, that ranges from reaching out to involve babies through to the dying and the bereaved. And that’s much harder to finance and often happens without any grants at all.”
David explained that he came from Cuba and lived in New York, “Canada, in Germany, in Italy, Spain, and I came here just for a week to have a little vacation before going to Florida to Miami to make a TV serial in 2008. So it has been a very long week.” The prison works connects with his personal story. “My father was a political prisoner. In the 10 years that he was in jail, at the time for visiting, they gave a violin to a violinist inmate, and he played his violin for an hour. And my father always felt it was the only hour in 10 years that the whole prison was in silence.”
David recounted how Paulo Lameiro, artistic director of the SAMP art school (and himself an opera singer), got some pushback at the idea of opera, but persisted and won everyone over with the first production of Don Giovanni, which François saw.
François set the scene: “Let me give an idea of what that prison looks like. I guess there’s about 200-250 inmates. It’s on what was once a farm. So there are some rather nice buildings from the 19th century, early 20th century, a vineyard—the prison produces its own wine. The purpose of the prison was education, so there were workshops for learning skills like bookbinding, ceramics, carpentry, and so on. But during the financial crisis, a lot of those activities were suspended. And now there’s mainly the farm as a training opportunity. So the space is quite big, but there are these semi-derelict buildings. And it’s in those buildings that the Don Giovanniopera was performed in an extraordinary situation with a mix of professional or semi-professional musicians playing in the orchestra and singing in the lead roles. In fact, three of the singers who performed in 2015 came back and performed in the project which happened last month. So there’s been a real continuity.”
“The inmates,” he added, “are young. Watching some of the rehearsals last month, they’re always hitting each other, jumping on each other, hugging each other. They’re just so full of energy and to have something like this to work on, you can see how much it means to them. There’s a significant majority of people whose heritage is in the former Portuguese colonies. So from Brazil, from Cape Verde, from Angola, Africa, other former colonies. It’s very difficult not to feel this is a very excluded group of young men whose lives have gone wrong very early. And then this project came about because of Paulo’s love of opera. He spent seven years as a baritone in the Opera House in Lisbon before coming back to his hometown, and creating this this extraordinary program of community music work. He has been able to persuade people who would normally listen to a whole range of different musics—predominantly rap and the traditional folk musics of other parts of the world—that opera is extraordinary. And to see that development has been really quite special.”
Listen to the podcast to learn about many things: the challenges of doing this work during the pandemic; of using technology to weave together the contributions of many different people at a distance including families, inmates, three composers, a librettist, and a stage director; of the project’s impact on the families of prisoners; of how the story of the separation of Ulysses and Penelope inspired the opera; how the three Traction projects—in Barcelona, in Dublin and rural communities in Ireland, and in Pousos in Portugal—connected, collaborated, and supported each other via the Co-creation stage; and how the SAMP project influenced policymakers in Portugal to value and support art in prison. A documentary is in the offing, so it’s hoped people everywhere will be able to watch the final performance on November 26th.