On the afternoon of Wednesday 14th December, a group of 8 singers from Durham Opera Ensemble (DOE) embarked on a trip into HM Frankland Prison to sing a set of carols for their Family Day. As the outreach officer, I decided I wanted to do something different with DOE. We had a real success with the childrens’ chorus in our Gala Production of Carmen last year and I was very keen to do the same with our next production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which takes place in the Gala Theatre this February. But there was more to be done this year.
In Durham, we just so happen to have three prisons within the county and it is very rare to get the opportunity to venture inside and therefore I felt it would be a truly unique experience of performing in a prison. I believe outreach to be an experience where BOTH sides of the party involved gain something from it. I had no doubt that finding a chance to visit one would be beneficial to both us as performers and those listening.
During the sermon series last year in Castle Chapel, Paul Tyler the chaplain of Frankland Prison delivered a sermon about what it was like to be on the support staff, focusing on his role as the central figure of ‘forgiveness’ within the prison. It was an utterly captivating sermon and he mentioned that he was a musician so naturally I felt the need to convince him with the idea that had just sprung into my head. He took the idea with great enthusiasm so 6 months later, we arrived at the prison.
It was an incredible opportunity to see life inside but on a happy occasion where 11 prisoners got the chance to see their families before Christmas, due to good behaviour. What immediately took us by surprise was that the visiting room looked like any other community centre and we could have been singing to anyone as the prisoners were not in uniform. The chairs in the visiting centre are set up in fours and one of the four chairs are red whilst the rest purple. On any other day, the prisoner who is being visited must remain in that seat at all times but on Family Day, the prisoners are given the chance to walk around freely as they wish. There are two sectors at the prison (main sector and vulnerable prisoners) and both have six family days a year where selected prisoners get the opportunity to spend some extra special time with their wives and children which is set up by the Chapel staff at Frankland.
Some of the prisoners and partners were clearly taken back by hearing live music as this was the first time that the prison had had a choir enter in a very long time. It was therefore a real privilege to be the group that gave them their first ‘live performance’ in a while. It was lovely to see many smiling faces responding to some of the classics carols such as Silent Night, Gabriel’s Message and our arrangement of Once in Royal David City.
I would like to say a massive thank you and congratulations to the singers, Emer Acton, Caitlin Brooks, Emily Barnes, Llewelyn Cross, Alex Akhurst, George Evans-Thomas and George Cook for their time and commitment to the project this term. I have thoroughly enjoyed leading this project and I believe I speak on behalf of all of the singers, that this is an experience that will stay with us for a long time. Thank you to Nigel Johnson and Paul Tyler on the Chapel committee team at Frankland Prison for allowing us to visit and look forward to visiting again in Easter and to Hannah Cleugh for establishing the relationship through University College Chapel.
To find out more about Durham Opera Ensemble (DOE) see: www.durhamoperaensemble.co.uk/