Last month, I attended an exclusive recital in Chicago. If you knew about this event, you would have gone to great lengths to be there. But no matter how hard you tried, you would have been denied access. The performers included a star-studded cast: legendary conductor Riccardo Muti, bass-baritone Eric Owens, tenor Antonio Poli, two singers from the Ryan Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (soprano Tracy Cantin and mezzo-soprano Julie Miller) and a brass quintet of Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians. For an aspiring musician like me, their sheer presence made my heart stop beating; it completely took my breath away. These are not only some of the greatest artists of our time, but of ALL time. However, they performed for a room full of people who had literally never heard of them before. The audience? Sixty-five juvenile prisoners. The place? The Illinois Youth Center, Chicago – a facility that houses incarcerated teen males on Chicago’s West Side. For the past five years, Maestro Muti has worked with the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute to present a number of different musical projects for at-risk and incarcerated youth. The flagship event each season is an opera recital, led by Maestro, in a juvenile prison.
Walking into the performance space, I asked myself, “What is the point of this? How do they expect to make a difference in these young men’s lives when they are not building a long-lasting relationship with them? And how is it fair that these men that ‘society wants locked up’ have the privilege to experience something as incredibly special (an understatement) as this? They won’t even appreciate it!”
I wish I could have asked Maestro Muti about his inspiration for this recital. When the performance began, it was painful for me to experience the prisoner’s reaction to the musical experience Maestro Muti and friends provided. There were outright giggles amongst the youth throughout the first piece, a Verdi aria featuring one of the world’s great tenors. My thoughts? “Oh no. Will the performers lose face? Will they stop? Maestro has never been so disrespected. Will someone step up and educate the men how they should behave as an audience?”
No! This is exactly what Maestro desired. He loved their reactions. As he walked around the room, he excitedly asked the men what they liked, did not like, and encouraged them to express their feelings openly. In return, the youth were not trying to say what Maestro wanted to hear. They could care less about what he thought of them, actually. Like most teenagers, they just wanted to be “cool” amongst their peers.
The awesomeness of this event emerged as the program progressed. Maestro’s interactions with the men broke through barriers and the audience became truly engaged in the music. I remember their questions and comments well: “What is the message?” “I like the piano more than the singing.” “How am I supposed to find the meaning of the music?” “I liked the mezzo-soprano the most – she seemed committed and dramatic.” The men’s frank comments left an impression on me. Why is it that I invest everything I have into my art?
Maestro Muti and friends were an exemplary display of what it means to break down the barrier between the formal stage and an audience. An even deeper bond was formed as Eric Owens shared his knowledge of Hip-Hop and danced alongside some of the youth. A small group of youth even got up and rapped for the audience.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had interactive performances like these in the formal concert hall? Together we can question, encourage, and inspire one another to explore new ideas.
All in all, I’ll say that for me and the young men who attended, this was an evening to remember.
Photos by Todd Rosenberg