An Iowa Prison Choir Makes Its New York City Debut

May 2, 2018

An opera opening in New York City this week will feature some voices from Iowa. But not all of the chorus members involved are free to travel to see the production in person.

Director Mary Cohen and the Oakdale Community Choir
Credit Rob Dillard / Iowa Public Radio

“Give yourself a little inhale," says director Mary Cohen, as she stands before her choir. "Open your mouth for the exhale. This time reflect on the message of the song. So the message of freedom, light, hope.”

She’s preparing the group to rehearse “The Prisoners' Chorus” from the Beethoven opera “Fidelio.” A recording of the song will be heard during a production by Heartbeat Opera in New York City this week. The musical run-through is taking place within the walls of the medium security Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, known locally as the Oakdale prison, where around half of the singers are serving time. One of the inmates is Joshua Lusch, who has been in prison since 2007, not due out for another 10 years, and a tenor in the Oakdale Community Choir since 2011.

“The choir has made me grow as a person," he says. "It's made me take responsibility, something I never thought I’d be doing.”

And now his voice, along with the other choir members, will be heard in Manhattan at the Heartbeat Opera. The company’s founder and co-artistic director Ethan Heard says it specializes in what he calls “radical adaptations” of classic operas, which is why he was drawn to “Fidelio,” the only complete opera written by Beethoven.

“I was really looking for something that had social urgency, political relevance,” he says by phone from New York.

For a story about a woman who goes undercover to infiltrate a prison where she believes her husband is wrongfully incarcerated, he also went looking for singing inmates. His search brought him to Oakdale, whose prison choir will have a prominent role in the production of “Fidelio.”

“It’s going to be the final choir of the six choirs we feature," Heard says. "So it will be the climax in a lot of ways.”

Preparing the music for its New York City debut has presented the choir with challenges, not the least of which is the lyrics are in German. In the closing minutes before a recording is made to send to Heartbeat Opera, inmate Joshua Lusch says the choir is still working on some things.

“We’re sounding pretty good," he says. "When we’re on time we’re good. It’ a slow song. It’s about half the speed we normally sing, so trying to find our beats when to come in is a little bit of a challenge. Especially when you’re trying to find those while you’re trying to remember the words.”

The insider chorus members will have to be satisfied with watching a videotape of the production. But Mary Cohen will be in the audience in New York. She founded the Oakdale Community Choir in 2009. It was the result of an interest she developed in graduate school after seeing one of the nation’s first community prison choirs in concert. Cohen wrote her dissertation about choral singing in lock-ups.

“A big part of this project is to transform how the broader public thinks about justice,” she says.

Cohen and the choir present two public concerts a year. The audience is usually made-up of family and friends. But Cohen seeks to invite the survivors of crimes, as well.

The Oakdale Community Choir rehearses "The Prisoners' Chorus" from Beethoven's "Fidelio."
Credit Rob Dillard / Iowa Public Radio

“We’ve had them come and be in the audience," she says. "And we’ve even put a set of lyrics together for an original song written by a woman, who is a survivor.”

Since arriving at the facility two-and-a-half years ago, Oakdale Warden James McKinney has thrown his support behind the vocal group.

“Ninety-three percent of the people who come to prison will someday walk the streets of Iowa or wherever," he says. "And if we haven’t done anything to change them, to make them better people, then they’re going to victimize somebody else.”

The Oakdale Community Choir will appear during six shows of “Fidelio” at the Heartbeat Opera in New York City beginning Thursday.