As an openly queer person, I wondered if it would matter to the audience. Performing in prison can be like performing in front of the audience at Showtime at the Apollo. They will let you know in an instant if you are off- key. Would their toxic masculinity afford me the moment of performing as Nero and tell the story of love between two different-sexed loving people?
Incarcerated: 28 years
Housed: Sing Sing Correctional Facility, New York
Singing in prison is tricky. Sing out loud and proud and you are guaranteed at least twenty people within earshot yelling “Shut the f*!@ up!” from the confines of their cages. But that wasn’t the case when I had the opportunity to sing with multi Grammy-Award winning mezzo soprano, Joyce DiDonato, and acclaimed American pianist, Howard Watkins. Singing taps into a voice that is uniquely yours, and on December 2, 2022, I got to use my voice as one of three tenors, singing opera. Two weeks prior, Carnegie Hall Weill Music Institute notified me that I would be in the concert along with two other incarcerated persons. The nerves immediately set in. We would be singing Pur Ti Miro from Monteverdi’s final opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea written in 1642. For the first time, this opera would be performed in the notorious maximum security prison of Sing Sing. We would be performing for people, like me, who did not have exposure to opera. I tried to dampen my voice by singing under the covers or when the noise from the company would overwhelm any sounds I could make. I don’t have a great ear and hoped I was singing the correct notes. I imagined myself as Nero, the character who sings to his love Poppaea. As an openly queer person, I wondered if it would matter to the audience. Performing in prison can be like performing in front of the audience at Showtime at the Apollo. They will let you know in an instant if you are off- key. Would their toxic masculinity afford me the moment of performing as Nero and tell the story of love between two different-sexed loving people? The day of the concert came quickly. I only wanted more time to practice. That afternoon we met with Joyce and Howard. They were kind and generous. We also found out that we would be singing in a chorus for the folk song “Shenandoah.” Joyce described the writer of the song as using music to remember their home, the Shenandoah Valley, from the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. That struck a chord with me. We were nearing the holidays- a tall Christmas tree with garland, multi-colored lights and ornaments was in the corner of the Catholic Chapel where we were performing. We were performing for some people who have not been home in decades. In fact, some people have lost all of their family members and what they thought of as home does not exist anymore. Literally, buildings have been torn down with new buildings in their place with gentrification and other forces reshaping what used to be “home.” The only home they have, that I have, is the home in our hearts and memories. The opera piece came and went. I was not even thinking about it. I was focused on singing my heart out on Shenandoah. I wanted the audience to know we were their home for that moment and that home was filled with warmth and love. Something they could take back with them to their cold cages.