There are moments in every good community art project when you watch, suspended between wonder and terror, as it takes flight, willing it to gain height and grace and speed. I had a glimpse of that today, as I read the libretto Paulo Kellerman has co-created with inmates and staff at Leiria juvenile prison, in Portugal, as part of the Traction project.
There have been many bumps on this road since SAMP set out in February last year, some of them anticipated, others definitely not. Only about half the planned 170 co-creation sessions have taken part – but I reckon that doing more than 80 opera workshops in a prison during a pandemic is, frankly, incredible. The more interesting bumps have come from the interaction between professional artists new to working in a prison context – three composers, writer, director, musicians and others – and the young men equally new to the world of opera.
The performances last June were another extraordinary achievement and filled with learning for everyone who took part. One of the most valuable lessons was that they’d gone down the wrong path in imagining a narrative for the opera that was rooted in realism. It’s true that the prison situation easily lends itself to drama but that doesn’t mean it will work in that context.
Summer is, ironically, a good time to work in the prison, because other activities are suspended. So SAMP’s workshop leaders worked intensively with the professional artists and the inmates (the non-professional artists) and their story took a radically new direction. Taking just two words – ‘door’ and ‘travel’ – they abandoned realism for myth.
Today, I read the libretto that has come out of that, using online translation to reveal the poetry of the Portuguese. And I was thrilled. Even in its incomplete form, without music, staging or any of the craft that will make this piece come to life next summer, I was swept away by the human power of this drama. More Samuel Beckett than Lorenzo Da Ponte, it reimagines the connected separation of Ulysses and Penelope as an archetype of huge resonance. I’ve made and watched community theatre for almost 40 years, but rarely have I seen a text with as much ambition or promise as this.
It’s still early days: there are nine months to go before this will be presented to audiences in Lisbon and in the Leiria prison. All sorts of things may yet get in the way. But right now, I’m filled with admiration at what has already been achieved and hope for what is to come. I’ve always held that the only way to make community art is to expect the absolute best from everyone involved, including yourself. It’s why the argument that the work involves dumbing down is so irritating in its ignorance. This libretto is shows that community art is never about compromising excellence: it’s about discovering what it mean in different places, for different people.