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The inside track

Violinist Rosenna East reports on a move to bring opera to Shotts prison, part of the Inspiring Change project

My friend is astonished. “You’re doing opera in prison?” he exhales noisily, in disbelief. “How on earth is that going down?”

I understand the open-mouthed amazement.

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People assume opera belongs to the posh and the privileged; black tie and champagne, not trainers and a prison sweatshirt.

But as part of a national project called Inspiring Change, the Scottish Opera and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are building an opera inside Shotts Prison, near Glasgow. Scotland’s long-term prisoners will write the story and the music, design and make the set and costumes. Then they will get up on stage and perform it.

Unlike my friend, the prisoners don’t bat an eyelid at the plan. On recruitment day, we announce ourselves in the halls with a fanfare on the trumpet and a tenor in a cloak singing Carmen. Canvassing for volunteers, not one of them says to me: “No no, we can’t do opera in here!”

Expecting them at least to be daunted by the idea of singing on stage, I focus on the option of building the set, or writing the script. Their reply? “But I want to sing!” And indeed many of them just do, along with the tenor, who has moved on to Nessun Dorma. Mid-conversation with me, a man erupts into song, clenching his fist tight in an attempt to control the physical and emotional thrill of singing. “Vincero,” they chorus.

“Singing helps with the stress,” one young offender tells me later.

As we leave each hall at Shotts that day, there is a rush of names added to our list of recruits. Hands that had stayed firmly in the safety of pockets while we were there, find the courage to make a last-minute grab at the signature sheets. As we count up the names to 60, staff talk with surprise about the most difficult being the most enthusiastic.

Only one man says to me that he will get “slagged” if he has anything to do with the project. Knowing I am in no position to tell him to just ignore the taunts, I try my hardest to persuade him to come anyway. A month later, I find him in one of the music-writing groups.

Enthusiasm aside, prison is definitely a challenging environment for creativity. Arriving for just a morning, not a sentence, the place still weighs on you. Corridor upon corridor leads deeper and deeper into the prison. There seems to be no air or natural light. I have the impression of walking in circles, to the heart of a labyrinth, and I know I would never find my own way out.

Inside for five minutes, the cello on Harriet’s back already looks like an object from another world. Wheeling the black and white piano across the grey prison yard is like an image from a bad dream.

I don’t know if it’s the place, or the size of the officers, but I start to feel absolutely tiny. I am wearing the closest thing to a burqa that I could find in my wardrobe, but I still feel hyper-conscious of being female.

Just like the prisoners, we musicians have no power to open any doors. We wait again and again, between concrete walls, beside impossibly heavy metal gates. They are released with the flick of a distant switch, by someone we can’t see, but who can see us.

And the men we are asking to be our composers and poets come out to meet us, from cells they have been locked in all night – rooms with no handle on the inside of the door. The first thing they do in the classroom is open a window for some fresh air.

Aristotle wrote that in listening to music, “our souls undergo a change”. Perhaps this is a feeble hope, set against the grim realities that bring people to Shotts, and that make reoffending so common.

But Inspiring Change will put Aristotle to the test. All six arts projects in five different prisons will be evaluated, to determine their value and effect. They hope to demonstrate, within the prison system, the potential of the arts to support the process of rehabilitation.

That system, so far, seems as enthusiastic as the men. Shotts staff seem genuinely pleased to have us there for the project, and want to help us. To sustain prisoner interest in education, through jail terms of over 10 years, they consider one-off projects like ours vital.

Kate Donegan, the deputy chief inspector of Prisons, says after the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s project with young offenders in Polmont that she feels this sort of thing “really needs to happen an awful lot more”.

Perhaps she feels “energised”, as she puts it, because she sees the boys singing songs they have written themselves, finally lifting their faces from the word sheets in their hands to look their audience, and families, in the eye. “At the end of the day, these guys have got to come out of here, come out of their shells, and go for jobs,” one officer points out.

At Shotts, the men focus on choices and consequences. They have written a gripping tale about the moral and personal crisis of a professional boxer asked to throw a fight. To put this story on the stage they will have to master new practical skills – of design and production, writing, composition and film animation. They will need to debate options for their script and its music as their confidence starts to grow.

In the music room, scars and tattoos cover the toughest guys ever to huddle round a cello. They describe it as “soulful”. Standing, we open our Monday morning lungs with a vocal warm up of Somewhere over the Rainbow. Then one by one, solo voices, fragile at first, are raised with musical offerings for our first piece of composition. In the heart of the prison, the men breathe life into their opera.

Inspiring Change is a year-long project, run by Motherwell College in conjunction with seven Scottish Arts companies. Funded by the government, it will deliver high-quality arts interventions to five Scottish Prisons: HMP Barlinnie, HMP Greenock, HMP Open Estate (Castle Huntly), HMP Shotts and HMYOI Polmont. It aims to stimulate offenders’ engagement with learning, improve literacy skills, and demonstrate the potential of the arts to support the process of rehabilitation. Build an Opera at Shotts prison concludes in September 2010.

Rosenna East is a violinist in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, one of several professional musicians delivering the joint project with Scottish Opera.

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