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Article Published: 02 Jan 2018

DiDonato Heads Up the River

Joyce DiDonato and Joseph Wilson performing at Sing Sing Correctional Facility
Joyce DiDonato and Joseph Wilson performing at Sing Sing Correctional Facility (photo: Stephanie Berger)

On the first Saturday afternoon in October, 4,000 well-to-do folks, paying as much as $400 a seat, packed the Metropolitan Opera House to see Bellini’s Norma. Few of them could have known that Joyce DiDonato, the production’s Adalgisa, had spent most of the previous day up the river, rehearsing and performing alongside prisoners in a concert at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Nor would they have known that DiDonato’s guest of honor at the Met matinee, seated in the general director’s box, was Renée Wilson, the wife of Joseph Wilson, a Sing Sing inmate.

Joe is a 38-year-old man with a linebacker’s build who’s serving 25 years to life for killing a man on a Brooklyn street in 2005. When DiDonato first visited Sing Sing in 2015, under the auspices of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program, her performance sparked a newfound passion for Joe: composing classical music. He wrote an aria, “Starlights,” that she performed during her 2016 visit. Now he’s writing an opera: Tabula Rasa, a story of murder and retribution set in a futuristic dystopia. In this year’s concert, he joined DiDonato on stage to perform “Katham confronts Eohis,” a scene from that work.

Like Joe, I have come to understand the redemptive power of the arts. I, too, murdered a man on a Brooklyn street. I’ve served 16 years of a 28-years-to-life sentence, starting at the Attica Correctional Facility. It was there that I landed a spot in a creative writing workshop, and I learned to craft stories about my peers. It was as a journalist that I sat in on the Friday afternoon rehearsal with DiDonato, pianist Craig Terry and the Sing Sing Resident Ensemble, preparing for that night’s performance.

In the scene from Tabula Rasa, DiDonato plays Eohis, the lover a murdered man, while Joe plays Katham, the man’s killer. “I can be free again if you can forgive me,” he sings.

“I will not forget. I will not forgive,” Eohis responds. Then, in the gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice for which DiDonato is so well known, she lashes out: “I want revenge!”

“That’s so hard for me to sing,” says Joyce to herself during a break. “Let’s do it again.”

Joyce DiDonato
Joyce DiDonato (photo: Stephanie Berger)

Sitting near me is Sarah Johnson, the spunky and intense director of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, which oversees Musical Connections. The program sends professional musicians into prisons and juvenile justice facilities for workshops in voice, instruments and composition. For the past nine years, the musicians have come to the prison’s band room to collaborate with prisoners on pieces that get performed throughout the year.

I attended my first Musical Connections concert soon after I transferred to Sing Sing a year ago, and experienced a joy that had eluded me for many, many years.

During a break in the rehearsal, I see DiDonato and Johnson chatting at the edge of the stage — they’re good friends — and slide in next to them. They tell me how the idea of sending Joyce to perform at Sing Sing came up over dinner three years ago. She was especially receptive to the idea because of her long involvement with Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking, about the bond between a death row murderer and a nun. Sister Helen Prejean, the opera’s real-life heroine, offered guidance when Joyce first visited Sing Sing; six visits later, the mezzo has forged connections with prisoners similar to Sister Helen’s — especially in this latest project with Joe Wilson.

It’s seven o’clock; the concert is about to start. The men stroll in from different cellblocks, greeting one another with hand daps and half hugs. “This white girl ’bout to sing her ass off,” says a man with a razor scar from the side of his mouth to his ear.

“That’s a fact,” says another guy. “I heard her last year.”

Joyce takes the stage, sporting a black leather jacket embroidered with red roses. She opens with some arias from Italian operas. When she hits the high notes, our mouths hang open and my spine tingles. Joe takes the stage for “Katham confronts Eohis,” sporting a crisp dress shirt along with the state-issued green pants we all wear. “Is Brooklyn in the house?” he shouts. “Is Harlem in the house?”

“Kansas City’s in the house!” Joyce responds, to groans and chuckles.

Joe briefly explains what the scene is about, and then he and Joyce begin to sing. When Eohis rebuffs Katham — “I want revenge!” — it captures how people on the outside often rebuff violent offenders like us, preferring retribution to forgiveness. Near me, a man who seems to have mental illness (one in five in prison do) breaks the spell by laughing maniacally.

When I see Joe a few days later, we’re passing each other in the dark tunnel that connects the prison’s buildings. We only have a few seconds to speak, and I ask him how his wife liked the Met. “She told me it was great,” he says. “She’s one of the .01 percent who have sat in box seats at the Met!” I think about that “.01 percent.” It’s those people who need to hear Tabula Rasa and who need to think about what it means to offer a prisoner a clean slate.

This article was published in the Winter 2018 issue of Opera America Magazine.