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Music in Prisons, Homeless Shelters, and Refugee Camps Could Change the World

A world-famous opera singer teams up with humanitarian groups for social change.

In London, a world-famous opera singer met with organizers to discuss how arts education benefits displaced and imprisoned persons, putting music at the forefront of work for social change. The panel, part of the Pure Land Series of talks held at China Exchange, consisted of Joyce DiDonato, an opera singer, Matt Peacock, an artistic director, and Anis Barnat, founder of El Sistema Greece. The monthly series aims to promote awareness and well-being through creativity.

“Music is one of the most effective things in art and culture,” DiDonato says. “If we can get those hearts slightly less rigid, then there’s space for empathy. I don’t know a more effective place to put myself right now, other than this work.” DiDonato participates in Carnegie Hall’s outreach program, where she teaches classical music at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. “I’ve never had so many spontaneous standing ovations in my life,” she says. DiDonato works closely with inmates, helping them compose their own operas through workshops, leading up to a performance of the pieces at the end. 

“Music is instilling dignity in these people who didn’t think it belonged to people anymore,” DiDonato says. “If a human being rediscovers their dignity, then they can start to contribute, they can take responsibility for their life situation, and they can start to contribute to the world. Are we solving world peace? I don’t know, but that man [in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility] has found world peace.”

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Streetwise Opera's The River Keeper. Photo Streetwise Opera

Streetwise Opera is a similar, London-based charity working with the city’s homeless population. The organization puts on professional-scale opera performances around the UK, involving homeless artists. “Music gives people permission to believe. I think the arts in general give people permission to believe,” says Peacock, the artistic director of Streetwise Opera. “The arts are in all of us. It’s a human right, and once people access their creativity, they feel like they can be defined by achievements and not by their needs.”

Lourdes Sanchez from El Sistema Venezuela works with El Sistema Greece in Athens last month. Credit: Angel Ballesteros

Working with refugees, El Sistema is a charity using music to promote social cohesion. “We hope music gives them a frame and the energy to understand each other and their cultures,” says Barnat, the founder of the program. He began working with child refugees in August 2016. “It doesn’t matter your religion or nationality, music breaks down all the borders, which is much-needed today, in these locations. Performance is very important, too. If you only do music lessons, it only stays within yourself. If you can show others, it gives you self-esteem.”

The refugee crisis and mass exodus of people from war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq have put pressure on European countries to help, but more needs to be done. “Music is only an excuse,” says Barnat, who anticipates that El Sistema will work with 2,000 children in 2017. “Ideally, we would like education to be provided to all these children in the refugee camps. We do music because we know how to do it.” DiDonato sees additional value in El Sistema’s work. “The opposite of war is not peace, it’s creation,” she says. “And you’ve got kids creating a performance. That’s powerful.”

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Streetwise Opera Gateshead workshop. Photo: Alan Kerr

Joyce DiDonato was in London following her album release War and Peace: Harmony Through Music, a musical response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris.

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