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Opera Star Helps Sing Sing Inmates Find Freedom Through Music

Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato and inmate Kenyatta Hughes perform Hughes's song, "A Place for Us," at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining in 2015. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger
Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, a guest artist with Carnegie Hall's outreach program, MusicalConnections, performs inmates' works at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger
Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato performs at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 2015 with other Carnegie Hall musicians and inmates. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

OSSINING, N.Y. -- When opera singer Joyce DiDonato walked past a group of prisoners during her first visit to the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, she kept telling herself: “Don’t make eye contact. Don’t make eye contact.”

But little did she know, she also told Cynthia McFadden, a senior legal and investigative correspondent for NBC News, that less than an hour later, she would not only be looking into their eyes, but into their souls as well.

The interview was presented by McFadden on the Today Show, with hosts Matt Lauer and Katie Couric looking on.

The mezzo-soprano started working with inmates at the maximum security prison as a special guest of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program in 2015.

The outreach program pairs up celebrated musicians from Carnegie Hall with inmates who they teach classical music theory and technique. The men also learn how to play instruments and compose music.

DiDonato conducted workshops and performed original music – much of it heartbreakingly sad yet hopeful and inspiring at the same time – that the men wrote for her, Carnegie Hall officials said.

This past October, she returned to share her love of music, which, she said in an earlier video journal, had become a “lifeline” for many of them, giving them back some of the dignity they lost by being locked up.

It is, she said on the video, “truly transforming their lives.”

It also, she said in the video, a chance at “clarity” by achieving some understanding of their situation and expressing their feelings about what they’ve done.

One of them, a convicted killer called Joseph Wilson, told NBC that he was not feeling it at all as he sat with arms crossed and eyes lowered at DiDonato’s first workshop.

Then, she sang, and everything changed.

Not only was he all in at that point, he told NBC, he felt he had to write something for DiDonato, that he had a story to tell.

DiDonato said something seemed to click in him and now, for the last two years, it has been his music that she sings at concerts for the prison’s general population, the NBC report said.

Wilson, who NBC reported has dedicated some of his compositions to his victim and his family, now believes that everyone has music inside of them.

Last April, Carnegie Hall/Weill Music Institute posted DiDonato’s “video journal” on YouTube where she talked about her first foray to the “Big House” in December 2015.

It was an “extraordinary” day, the singer recalled in her video journal, adding that she couldn’t ever remember being surrounded by more “kindness, appreciation and generosity.”

One of the inmate’s works that has emerged from all this was a solo piece for string quartet and mezzo, an ode to the composer’s father, she said in the journal. Two others, one of them Kenyatta Hughes, wrote duets.

She and Hughes took to the stage in 2015 to perform “A Place for Us,” a song he had written about home, freedom and what both of those things mean when you’re behind bars.

It is here -- in a sampling of Hughes’s poignant lyrics -- that it’s crystal clear what DiDanato means when she talks about music being a bridge between many different worlds.

“Somewhere that’s real; we can taste it from here/Somewhere that’s free, free from hate, free from fear/Somewhere that’s bright, with the right clearly seen/We’ll step into the light, and give life to the dream.”

“Here in this place, I can’t breathe, I can’t be/ Here in this place it’s a sin to be me/ Here in this place when we win, we must lose/ When there’s truth to a lie, when there’s no choice to choose.”

“There is a place for us/ just out of sight, all tied to our vision. Heaven awaits for us, just keep the faith.”

To see the Today Show interview, click here.

To see DiDonato’s video journal, click here.

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