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At Minn. women's prison, Mother's Day sadness turns into opera

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The Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra rehearses 'It Rained on Shakopee.'
The Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra rehearses "It Rained on Shakopee" on June 17, 2017, at Weber Music Hall at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Inmate 568 sits in the Minnesota Correctional Facility, Shakopee. It's Mother's Day, and she listens anxiously as a prison guard calls out other inmates' numbers when children come to visit. Her daughter never comes.

It's a despair New York composer Wang Jie unearthed while teaching music workshops this spring inside the Shakopee women's prison. She and playwright Zhu Yi wanted to find a way to turn that feeling into opera.

Doing so meant finding incarcerated women willing to talk. They discovered much more than that.

The women they worked with became more than simply inspiration for fictional inmate 568 in the opera, "It Rained on Shakopee," which premiers tonight at the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra. Eleven of them also make up a chorus featured in the performance.

New York composer Wang Jie's wrote the opera, 'It Rained on Shakopee.'
New York composer Wang Jie's opera "It Rained on Shakopee" features a recorded woman's chorus from the Shakopee women's prison.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Wang calls this recorded ensemble a "ghost choir."

"We're hearing a choir," she explained, "but it's actually coming from the prison. You hear the voices, but we don't see them, we can only hear them. Why can't we see them? Because they're incarcerated, they're behind bars."

It's believed to be the first opera featuring voices of the incarcerated from an American prison.

"It required a miracle to score this piece in 20-something days," she said, noting she only had about 25 days to compose 20 minutes of chamber opera music after meeting the inmates and teaching the classes. She didn't finish writing some of the orchestra parts until this week.

Zhu also met the inmates in a lyric writing class she taught. She admitted feeling nervous before going to Shakopee, wondering if it was like the hit TV show "Orange is the New Black," which is set in a women's prison.

What she found were women eager to soak up anything they could learn about music.

"A lot of them are mothers, so when they talk about their children, their face lit up immediately, and they would cry when they would talk about their children," she said. "It was just like pure joy, and also sadness."

Director Warren Friesen, composer Wang Jie rehearse with children’s chorus.
Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra director Warren Friesen and composer Wang Jie rehearse with a children's chorus that will perform in Wang's opera.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Wang, Zhu and Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra director Warren Friesen spent two days at the Shakopee prison working with the chorus.

The prison had an established choir, but Wang didn't want a polished sound. Instead, she went with 11 women who volunteered and didn't have to try out.

The first day, they read through the story Zhu had written. Two days later, they had two hours to record the music. They were told to expect something akin to a rudimentary church choir.

Wang heard something much different.

"After I heard them sing, I was just floored — the enthusiasm," she said.

After nearly two hours of singing, they had a solid recording. But the inmates insisted on another take.

Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra director Warren Friesen
Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra director Warren Friesen rehearses with a children's chorus on June 17, 2017.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"And then we had another few minutes on the clock." Wang recalled. "Warren was pretty happy. That was the best take so far. Then they were like, 'No, no, we want to sing this again!'"

"That's the take that we're going to hear during the concert," she said, "The very last take that was not supposed to happen, if the prisoners did not insist that we keep on singing."

The woman largely responsible for those extra takes is a 30-year old inmate from North Dakota in the Shakopee women's prison on drug charges. Prison officials allowed her to speak with MPR News provided we did not reveal her name.

She grew up with music, performing in theater, choir and band. Her father was a music educator for more than 40 years.

"And I never in a million years ... thought I'd get this opportunity," she said.

When people see the opera, and hear the prison chorus, she said, she wants the audience to know they're more than merely inmates, offenders or felons.  

"There are all these terrible words that they classify us as," she said. "To also remember, we are still women, and we all have a story, we also have hopes and dreams and aspirations that we want to accomplish, and loved ones out there that we want to see."

For her, that includes her mom, who's scheduled to visit her for the first time next weekend.  

In September, Wang plans to present an opera performance inside the prison, with the inmate chorus singing live with the lead singers.

  "I anticipate," she said, "there is going to be some trying to hold back the tears."