Jakson and Fabio

Almost exactly five years ago. I filed into the Leiria youth prison, along with about 250 other outsiders—officials, funders and, mostly, the mothers, partners and children of the inmates. We had come to see the result of an extraordinary gamble by Paulo Lameiro and his team at SAMP, the local music school, a gamble that they could combine their artistic and human capacities with those of the inmates to perform Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

To say that it was an extraordinary performance is simply to state the obvious. It was also unforgettable, and the beginning of a journey that led to further opera performances in the prison, and now to the most ambitious project yet – the co-creation of a new opera, to be performed by inmates and prison officers with their relatives and members of the wider community. The connection between people inside and outside the prison will be assured through digital technology, but the technology would be nothing without the humanity that brings everyone together, in the double incarceration of prison and pandemic, to co-create something that comes from and touches the most important part of ourselves. 

Work began inside the prison a couple of months ago, and will continue for the next two years. This time, as a partner in TRACTION, I’m helping to make it happen, although for now I’m confined behind the glass wall of my computer screen. I hope to be in Leiria at the end of October but, honestly, who know? On Monday, I had a long conversation with Paulo, David and Sandra, and heard about the focus and commitment of the young men they’re working with, almost all of whom are new to the project. The focus of the new opera is becoming clearer. It will be the story of the prison, a site that has been so many things, and witnessed so much in its decades of operation. There’s a lot to feel good about already.

But the work is shadowed by the recent deaths of two young men who had gained so much from performing in previous productions, Fabio, a beloved only son, and Jakson, who added his rap to the end of Don Giovanni in 2015. Two young men, trying to find a place in the world…

Paulo and his team have written a powerful text honouring Fabio and Jackson, and a project under “a sentence imposed by COVID, bestowed upon all of us unexpectedly, relentlessly and creatively”. It’s not an easy read, but it is moving and important, not just to those engaged with community art, but to all of us, because we live on either side of walls and borders, because we struggle to do the right thing in life, because we’re human beings.  

My photograph shows the finale of Don Giovanni in October 2015, with Jakson performing his rap.

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