Soloman Howard debuted at the San Francisco Opera in Turandot not long ago. But the bass, snazzily dressed in a gray suit and a black hat with guitars on his socks, made time to come to San Quentin State Prison to be a part of the first recital of its kind there. A couple years ago, Howard performed at Attica Prison in New York, and he loved the experience.
“I really appreciated the audience,” he says. “It was a bunch of men who didn’t hold back.”
Howard, who grew up in Washington, D.C. , has other musicians in his family — he told the audience that his grandfather opened for B.B. King, who also played at San Quentin — but he’s the first to be a classical musician. Howard started singing at church when he was three years old. He grew to love opera because he feels it has it all — song, dance, theater, and visual appeal — and he thinks anyone can enjoy it.
Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who, like Howard, also just made her debut at the San Francisco Opera (in Girls of the Golden West) agrees that opera is for everyone.
“The sound of pure voice — there’s nothing like it,” she says. “I just hope to bring some joy to people who need it.”
That kind of joy can have powerful effects, according to soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, who says she jokes with her physician husband that she can heal people, too.
“I feel like singing is medicinal,” she says. “I don’t just get up and entertain. I hope to provide solace and reflection.”
Some San Quentin staff members on break as well as inmates came to the prison’s small chapel for the concert. Paul Casey says he came because he hadn’t heard opera.
“Part of my rehab is trying to do things I’ve never done before,” he says. “I’m taking college classes, and I started working on The Comedy of Errors with Marin Shakespeare Company.”
The singers chose their songs with care, picking not only works they like to sing, but ones they thought the audience might recognize. Bridges sang “Habanera” from Carmen, which she told the audience was in a lot of movies and TV shows. Brown did “He’s Got the Whole World,” and soprano Andrea Lett sang “Der Hölle Rache” (“Queen of the Night”) from The Magic Flute, telling the enchanted audience that YouTube has videos with a parrot singing it and another with screaming goats. Howard sang “Ol’ Man River,” and Kenneth Overton did a duet with Brown from Porgy and Bess.
Johnny Cash and Metallica have also famously performed at San Quentin, but opera is an entirely different beast. For Overton, a baritone, music is one of the best gifts they could give.
“I think everyone in the world deserves great music,” he said. “If it brightens the day for one person or inspires or brings back a memory, then it’s a success.”
After the concert, the audience asked the singers questions, wondering how they were able to act and sing at the same time (not so easy, they responded). They asked what languages the performers knew (“I can get around Germany without getting into trouble, and I can eat my way through Italy and France,” Overton replied). And the inquired about what music they listen to when they’re relaxing. Lett says she listens to pop, like Justin Bieber, “I know it’s the worst,” she said. “But I just love it so much.”
The singers’ desire to bring joy and some solace to people locked up seemed to be fulfilled.
“I had no idea what you were singing,” one audience member told them. “But I understood every word.”