CORALVILLE — Before going to prison, the prospect of singing in an opera in New York City was not even on Joel Conard’s radar.
But Tuesday inside the Iowa Medical and Classification Center — commonly known as Oakdale Prison —— the inmate who has called that facility home since 2012 saw the impossible become reality. With cameras recording and opera company directors looking on, Conard opened a rehearsal for Oakdale’s prison choir with a solo.
Soon, voices of the full 70-some-member chorus filled the prison gymnasium, all with the goal of creating a cohesive recording for Heartbeat Opera’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” — a performance that will mix live actors and prison footage for six stage performances between May 3 and 13 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan.
“That is an opportunity that I would probably have never had on the outside,” said Conard, 51, of Winterset. “To be able to participate in that. Even being interviewed. I never would have had that opportunity out there, either.”
Conard joined the Oakdale choir — led by University of Iowa professor Mary Cohen — shortly after he was sentenced in 2012.
The nearly 10-year-old “restorative justice” program, which unites singers from inside the prison with community members from outside, seemed a good fit for the man who had been in choirs growing up.
But the experience has created more than music for the inmate, who has three years to go on his sentence. He says it has created opportunity, connection and hope.
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“Losing some of that human connection, I think, is why I ended up here,” Conard said. “This has really brought back some of that connection that I’d been missing.”
Through relationships with community members in the choir, Conard has received job offers — for once he’s released.
That’s why Warden Jim McKinney allows the choir, which has produced 20 concerts for audiences of hundreds.
“Ninety-five percent of those guys sitting out there someday are going to go home, and they’re going to be a next-door neighbor to somebody,” McKinney said. “And if they learn to be a good neighbor while they’re sitting here — learning to give of themselves, being kind to somebody else — my chances of them being a success when they walk out the door grows exponentially.”
The choir includes about 40 “inside” singers — those serving sentences at Oakdale — and about 30 “outside” singers. The UI recently began offering college credit for participation, which is why Joel Zamora, 32, joined.
Having served stints in jail and prison, Zamora said he was well-acquainted with the darker side of incarceration.
“But I’m meeting a lot of positive people,” he said.
Asked if he’d keep on even if college credit wasn’t an option, Zamora said he’s been thinking about that lately.
“I think I would,” he said. “The environment is so welcoming. They actually make us feel like we’re human as opposed to just another number.”
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That’s what Ethan Heard and Daniel Schlosberg hope to do with their production, which tells the story of a black activist who is wrongly incarcerated. His wife, in an effort to find him, poses as a man and infiltrates the system. At one point, she persuades a guard to let the inmates out into an open yard as she desperately searches for her husband.
“This is that moment, it’s right in the middle of the opera, when for the first time we go from a very chamber scale story to here come dozens of incarcerated folks,” according to Heard, co-artistic director for Heartbeat Opera, which creates radical revisions of traditional operas.
“And they sing this beautiful piece about breathing freely for the first time in a long time and feeling that joy of the open air.”
By re-imaging the chorus and rearranging the music, co-music director Schlosberg made it possible to record six prison choirs across the country — including the one at Oakdale — singing parts of the full piece. The compilation will be broadcast as part of the production on stage.
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