Thanks to opera singer Sara LeMesh for her recent holiday concerts for Bread & Roses at Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility in Oakland. Read her beautifully written blog below about what it was like for her to sing for the adults inside the facility, as well as the benefits that she observed her audiences receiving.
On a brisk Sunday evening in December, I visited a jail in Oakland to sing several songs for numerous groups of inmates. At the jail, inmates are organized within distinct “pods.” Within these secured pods are two floors: an upper floor with about 5 group cells and a lower floor with between 4–5 group cells. There isn’t much within the pods — they are secured by a transparent, heavy door, and within them there is a staircase and plastic chairs on the lower floor for group seating.
I have been volunteering for Bread & Roses Presents since 2003, a Bay Area nonprofit dedicated to providing free, live entertainment for those who cannot easily attend performances and shows. Volunteers and performers travel to prisons, rehab facilities, nursing homes, schools, and psychiatric wards — the parts of society that we know exist, but try to push away.
It is through Bread & Roses Presents that I found my voice as a performer and, even before I knew this consciously, discovered my passion for public service. I have been to a variety of nursing homes since 2003 when I was 13 years old. Some of them are beautifully maintained and probably cost upwards of $100,000 per year per resident, while others are sorely understaffed and lack effective air conditioning in the summertime.
I recently began singing at rehab facilities in San Francisco, but I hadn’t been asked to sing at a prison until now. These performances require great emotional fortitude and stamina and can be quite intimidating. However, when Carolyn Gauthier, VP of Programs at Bread & Roses Presents, called to see if I was interested, I knew I had to sing. There was no question in my mind.
I arrived at the jail in black pants, black boots, and a red sweater while wearing my thick winter coat with faux fur trim. Why not look the part of a diva? I thought as getting dressed — costumes, even subtle ones, make the performance feel more real to both me and my audience. There weren’t many people in the waiting room of the jail — just a tired looking man on his cell phone and a sleeping woman.
After setting up the speakers, going through the metal detector, and learning the procedures, my escorts and I were ready to proceed. Entering a jail isn’t like the movies make it seem — they are quiet, orderly, and seemingly sterile.
I was asked to sing three songs per pod — providing a mini-concert lasting approximately 10 minutes for each group of inmates. The first group exited their cells upon being told there was a vocalist here to perform. Although it wasn’t required to listen to me, most left their pods curious and interested.
As they began sitting down — some on the staircase, others on the plastic chairs — I noticed their attention was split between me and the television showing the Raiders game. I had been warned before that “It wouldn’t be anything personal if they don’t listen, it’s just that it’s a popular game.”
I didn’t feel offended at all; rather, I found it endearing and amusing. Here they are, a group of convicts, watching football while listening to me sing some opera and broadway songs. I began my first concert with a classical song called "Lascia ch’io pianga" from Handel’s opera Almira. Sung in Italian, I’m not sure how many people understood the words, but they knew the content. The character who sings this song is being held as prisoner and weeps over her “cruel fate.”
Some of the men closed their eyes, some of them looked at the T.V. guiltily while listening, and most of them kept their eyes glued on me. They heard the rich harmonies in my karaoke track, the resonant violin parts, my pointed and high soprano reverberating through the white, blank walls.
For the second song, I decided to sing "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." Immediately, some of the men responded to the jazzy instrumental track and the relaxed melody. I saw some smiles, some serious faces pondering past holidays perhaps, and lots of reflection in their eyes.
I ended with an Italian tune, "Caro mio ben," a simple melody about love: “My darling dear, at least believe me, without you my heart languishes.” The concert ended with a roar of applause, and some of the men asked for an encore. My heart was full, but I also wished I could sing for another 30 minutes for them.
The inmates re-entered their cells, and we moved on to the next pod. I started to change some of my selections based on audience feedback. Instead of the slow Handel aria, I began with "Caro mio ben" and ended with a musical theater piece, "Come to your senses," from the musical tick, tick… BOOM! They loved the rock beat and the booming electric guitars in the track.
For a few of the pods, I sang "Ave Maria" because I wanted the men to receive a prayer. Even as a Jewish woman, the text of "Ave Maria" resonates with me deeply, particularly the line: “Pray for us deeply, now in the hour of death.”
I sang for a total of 9 pods: 3 songs each, 90 minutes of singing total. The men were appreciative each time, and I never once felt unsafe in their presence. I sang in front of their pods, with the pod door wide open. In fact, at times, I wanted to touch them — to hug them, to hold their hands and tell them that people cared. That no matter what they did, they deserve music, and I’m here to provide it. They don’t just deserve music, they deserve to be thought of as human beings.
My voice was tired and almost hoarse at the end of the evening; I treated every pod performance as its own, and wanted the men to have a unique experience. One man shouted: “You’ve got a new fan of opera over here!” and others asked “What language was that?” I would like to return to teach music classes and show them how they can sing and practice on their own — that they don’t need a fancy instrument or money to experience and make music.
Even with the Raiders game on, the men enjoyed the music and maintained open hearts for the new sounds. So, for those who think that football and opera don’t go together — think again! Perhaps the agile and strong players have more in common with musicians than we think: we both want to be a role model for others, we want to achieve great things with our voices and bodies, and we want to give people something to enjoy.
I myself don’t watch sports at all — but it certainly didn’t bother me that I was accompanied by the football players. We coexisted perfectly that night — providing an evening of escape, a little excitement, and hopefully some holiday cheer. I can’t wait to go back to the next jail to sing.
Follow Sara on Medium for more intriguing articles about her experience as an opera singer and working in the tech industry.
1) Sara LeMesh, age 14, at The Redwoods, 2003. Photo by Peter Merts.
2) Sara singing in Oakland, Spring 2014. Courtesy of Sara LeMesh
3) Joan Baez with Sara Lemesh at a fundraising event at the St. Francis Yacht Club in 2006. Photo by Andrew deLory
4) Sara at a Bread & Roses volunteer celebration in 2016. Photo by Peter Merts