LA Opera performs stories by incarcerated youth at juvenile hall

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An enthusiastic group of incarcerated minors were treated to cupcakes and high-energy performances by the L.A. Opera in the auditorium at Central Juvenile Hall Friday. The performance pieces were based on original works by the detained youth.

The performance, titled "Words & Song," was a collaboration between the opera, the L.A. County Department of Probation and InsideOut Writers (IOW), a nonprofit that organizes writing workshops within the L.A. County Juvenile Hall system.

Four members of the L.A. Opera were at the facility to perform: Baritone Eli Villanueva, baritone LeRoy Villanueva, mezzo-soprano Nandani Sinha and pianist Daniel Faltus. Eli Villanueva composed the work; LeRoy Villanueva is his brother. The quartet took on opera classics as well as five original pieces, each composed from the writings of students from the juvenile hall.

"It brightened up people's faces to see that people actually care about those who are incarcerated," says LaNisha, who was in the audience. "It brings us hope to have a better life."

The performance culminated with a work titled, "Free at Last," written by Alton Petrie, a formerly incarcerated youth and alumnus of InsideOut Writers. He wrote the work to express his feelings about his release. LeRoy Villanueva performed his piece, mixing classical opera with gospel sounds to produce a finale that piqued the interest of many in the audience.

"It just really comes from the bottom of my soul," Villanueva says.

IOW conducts weekly writing classes in juvenile detention facilities taught by writers, lawyers, screenwriters and others who volunteer their time. IOW Executive Director Wendy Killian says the classes consist of 250 to 300 incarcerated youth per week.

“We get these kids to open up and be self-reflective in a way that they’ve never been encouraged to do,” she says. Killian says the students’ writings tell stories of abuse, the pain of losing friends to violence and include apologies for what they’ve done. “[The classes] are an opportunity to encourage them to deal with the challenges they face as an incarcerated young person,” she says.

L.A. Opera Director of Education and Community Programs Stacy Brightman says the partnership with IOW is a natural fit for the organization.

“Our artwork always starts with the stories, with the words,” she says.

According to Brightman, the creative process of transforming the students’ stories to opera pieces was easy. Their writing “demanded to be musicalized, says Brightman.

Composer Eli Villanueva says that the point of the program is to show the students another art form through which their writing can be expressed. He says he connects to the writing because of the personal nature of the works. "You see this desire to go somewhere else, to be somewhere else."

Killian says Friday's event grew out of a past collaboration in which the L.A. Opera performed at an IOW retreat at Central Juvenile Hall. The performance was so well received, IOW decided to make it a stand-alone event.

“Eli is so exciting and happy to be there and full of energy,” Killian says, “He brought the kids in instantly.”

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