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Inmates bring Mozart opera alive


Criminals sitting out long-term sentences were given a rare opportunity to break down the figurative walls between prison life and freedom by joining local students in staging an opera near Frankfurt.

All five shows in the production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute took place inside prisons in the region, but the organisers hope to take the show out to the public next year.

This year’s last performance was at a prison in the town of Butzbach, north of Frankfurt, on Wednesday evening. Some 80 local inmates clad in uniforms of dark trousers and red shirts, as well as outside guests, attended the show in the towering 116-year-old brick-faced facility’s gymnasium, under the watchful eyes of uniformed guards.

Visitors had to follow the prison’s security procedures, handing over photo identification at the gate, being checked with hand-held metal detectors and walked across the gravelled yard by a prison guard in cold October rain.

Frankfurt actress and comedian Maja Wolff started the project three years ago with musician Ulrike Pfeifer, and this is the third production the duo has put on so far.

This year’s project brings together male and female inmates for the first time, which has posed considerable challenges.

The male and female inmates were not allowed to rehearse together, so they learned their lines and steps separately and met for the first time at dress rehearsal on opening night.

“The project is really great for the prisoners because they can work on something with the students. And for the students, it’s a social project,” Wolff said.

The performance of The Magic Flute mixed familiar elements of Mozart’s opera with modern features, such as a rap song by the character of Papagena, the woman chosen for lonely bird catcher Papageno, and narration by surly television reporter Klara Fall who interviews the Queen of the Night on stage.

Puns and allusions to prison life evoked laughter and applause from the audience, most of whom are serving long prison sentences in Butzbach.

The audience was left wondering who among the performers on the stage was a student and who was an inmate.

Familiar recorded tracks were intermingled with live chorus songs and percussion techniques familiar from groups such as Stomp and Blue Man Group.

They evoked hearty applause, whistles and a standing ovation for the amateur actors from the prisoners in the audience before the inmates were shepherded back to their cell blocks.

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