“Very rarely in life are we given a gift as precious as this one. It’s humbling to tell a story from people who have suffered so much, rallied so much and given us so much to believe in, in terms of what they are capable of in the best sense of survival.”
Survival. Perseverance. Justice. Renewal.
It sounds like the stuff of a screenplay. In this case, though, it’s opera, which introduces the creative possibilities of storytelling using music, story and song. The finished product, “Blind Injustice,” makes its world premiere this month. The much-anticipated production by the Cincinnati Opera in Music Hall’s Wilks Studio will have five performances between July 22-27, and all are sold out.
(A special preview event on July 17 at Allen Temple A.M.E. Church in Roselawn will feature several excerpts from the opera, along with a discussion with exonerees whose stories are part of the production and the creative team behind “Blind Injustice.” The July 17 event is free, but tickets must be reserved in advance.)
The opera is an adaptation from a book written by Ohio Innocence Project co-founder and director Mark Godsey. It explores the psychology behind wrongful convictions while also drawing on specific experiences from OIP exonerees.
For the creative team charged with developing the opera, it has been a challenging and emotional process.
The quote atop this story is from Robin Guarino, the director of “Blind Injustice” and also the J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair in Opera at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music. She and the rest of the creative team behind the production felt an almost sacred obligation to create a work that takes the audience inside the emotional heart of wrongful convictions in a way they’ve never experienced before.
“One of the first lines in the opera, as well as one of the last lines of the opera is a very important question for me, which is ‘What makes a person?’” says David Cote, the New York-based librettist for “Blind Injustice.”
In a story with sprawling possibilities, he found focus in the question of how a person’s humanity is impacted by the excruciating stress of facing prison for something you know you did not do. Or on the opposing side, how does a prosecutor’s humanity play into the equation in cases where they may have doubt about absolute guilt? Trials are overflowing with legal details and maneuvers, but at their heart, they remain a drama involving real people who have both real flaws and real strengths, all of it playing out against a backdrop where the most important details are frequently disputed.
When the system reaches the wrong conclusion, the results are devastating. That has occurred at least 2,471 times since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Ohio has added 28 exonerations to that total since the Ohio Innocence Project’s founding in 2003. The opera’s creative team reviewed those histories and decided they could tell the story best by focusing on six OIP exonerees who represented a variety of circumstances – Clarence Elkins, Rickey Jackson, Nancy Smith and the men collectively known as the East Cleveland 3, consisting of Laurese Glover, Eugene Johnson and Derrick Wheatt.
The pressure of developing the story in the right way ran high because all six of the exonerees were there to tell their stories, confirm details, but also weigh in when something didn’t feel quite right.
“These are people – wives, mothers and sons, but they are also characters who have experienced something in common,” says the opera’s composer, Scott Davenport Richards, who used that variability in characters and experience to introduce different music styles ranging from opera to jazz and even a rap-style song. “We were able to use that common experience, but also show their individual style.”
The scaffolding that the opera is built around are the points about criminal justice made in Godsey’s book, but there were certain specific moments described that were so indelible that the creative team knew they had to be included.
“There were moments like Laurese’s description of going ‘into the hole,’ into solitary confinement, or Clarence talking about being in jail and realizing when the door shut that that was it and how he could hear the voices in the hall,” says Guarino. “There was no way you were going to leave those kinds of numbers out.”
The creative team made some unusual choices in how the story would physically be staged and the audience’s relationship to that, all in an effort to create the right setting for delivering the power of these stories. “How they structured this was unimaginable to me,” says Godsey. “They had 13 hours of interviews with the exonerees and then the book which discussed these complicated psychological issues. Somehow they made it work, where it flows.”
There’s also an element of a chorus, which is fitting, because it is central to how the idea of the opera first emerged. After Godsey’s book was published, the OIP Young Professionals group joined the Young Professionals Choral Collective for a joint event. Once the book came under discussion, YPCC artistic director KellyAnn Nelson began advocating for the possibilities that it could work as a musical experience.
YPCC members will be on stage. “It’s simplistic to say the prosecutor is the bad guy and the defense attorney is the good guy. They are set up in exactly the same way as the two antagonists would be in a Verdi opera,” says Evans Mirageas, the Cincinnati Opera’s artistic director. “You have an incredibly important role for the chorus, because the chorus is not only the Greek chorus, of course, but they step out of their larger role as a collective and animate the story with small bits and pieces of dialogue.”
It all sounds like an immersive experience unique to the world of contemporary operas. But even as it was all wrapping up with the debut now in sight, those behind the opera retained a vision as their highest priority.
“Opera gives us the chance to have all the voices heard as an ensemble,” says Cote. “For me, what I hope I’ve accomplished is to be true to the voices of these exonerated people in an opera context. That’s the most important thing I hope I’ve achieved.”