Cher Public

Songs of innocence

Blind Injustice had its world premiere this week, presented by Cincinnati Opera in collaboration with the Young Professionals Choral Collaborative. It’s a masterpiece, brilliant theater with a great libretto by David Cote, a compelling dramatic score by Scott Davenport Richards, performed with urgency by 12 members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under the direction of John Morris Russell and a superb cast directed by Robin Guarino.

Blind Injustice represents a pinnacle in contemporary opera, and it is certainly the most important work produced by the company’s CONext initiative.

Wrongful incarceration is a staple of operatic rep and in recent months, adaptations of Beethoven’s Fidelio have been staged, most notably Heartbeat Opera’s production that featured video recordings of actual prison choruses singing the famous chorus from Act II.  Earlier this year, the New York Philharmonic debuted David Lang’s riff on Fidelio, called a prisoner of state.

Blind Injustice, though, is the first opera about actual cases of wrongful incarceration,  based on UC law professor and Ohio Innocence Project co-founder Mark Godsey’s 2017 book Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Incarceration, a damning indictment of the corruption in the criminal justice system that fosters wrongful convictions based on coerced witnesses, confirmation bias, and withheld evidence.

Godsey was a successful prosecutor for New York State; he did a 180 when he first worked with the Innocence Project at Northern Kentucky University’s law school and went on to co-found the Ohio Innocence Project in 2003 when he moved to the University of Cincinnati’s law school.

David Cote’s libretto telescopes four cases successfully argued by the Ohio Innocence Project that ultimately freed six people who served over 120 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Statements from over 13 hours of recorded interviews with exonorees were incorporated into the libretto, along with material from Godsey’s book. Cote says that the exonorees’ words account for forty percent of the libretto. The story arc is linear, tracking the cases’ outcomes.

In the space of 90 minutes, there are scenes of rowdy attorneys celebrating victory (as opposed to justice), forensic scientists vaunting the infallibility of their evidence, harrowing depictions of violence by law enforcement officials and, most powerfully, the prisoners’ bewilderment, despair, deep faith, and vindication.

Despite the necessary concision, Cote maintains each character’s humanity without devolving into caricature.

Cote has an ideal collaborator in composer Scott Davenport Richards, whose training as an actor (he originated the role of Sylvester Brown in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Broadway) gives the drama a varied and solid footing, allowing the words to sing across musical styles.

The score is a brilliant fusion of minimalism, hip-hop, jazz, and blues and never becomes pastiche. The exonorees’ arias express their states of mind with exquisite and powerful expression.

The opera opens in a blare of sounds incorporating sirens and a propulsive rhythm that ends suddenly as the Prosecutor steps forward.

Godsey is the model for both the young Prosecutor and the Defense Attorney who frequently spar off throughout the opera. The Prosecutor revels in his power, proclaiming “You need me! I will always win!”  in his opening music. Singing with obnoxious youthful arrogance, Joseph Lattanzi embodies the legal system’s obsession with winning rather than with justice. Samuel Levine as his alter-ego, the Defense Attorney, is equally passionate, powerfully so.

The role of the exonorees draw heartbreaking, riveting performances from the young cast.

Maria Miller is Nancy Smith, a bus driver for a Head Start program in Lorain County, who served 14 years on charges of sexual abuse of children on her bus. Tenor Joseph Copabianco portrays Clarence Elkins, who served seven and a half years for the rape and murder of his mother-in-law and the molestation of his niece.

Terence Chin-Loy, Sankara Harouna and Miles Wilson-Toliver are Laurese Glover, Derrick Wheatt and Eugene Johnson, known as the East Cleveland Three, who served 20 years for a murder based on evidence from a coerced witness. Eric Shane sings Rickey Jackson, who served 39 years for murder based on false testimony.

Singing Derrick Wheatt’s mother, Deborah Nansteel’s anger-fueled lament was all too real. Victoria Okafor is Alesha, the OIP attorney whose righteous indignation propels her even as the legal system disgusts her. Morgan Smith turns in a frightening portrayal of serial rapist and killer Earl Mann; his cellmate is played by Joseph Parrish.

The chorus—16 YPCC members and eight professionals—serve to echo popular sentiment, as the voices of children coerced into repeating what parents want them to say, as cell-block prisoners, and the voices of us all. They are forcefully present throughout.

Guarino’s ingenious direction is the best work I’ve seen from her. Scenes flow organically along a dramatic arc that is always focused on the endurance of human spirit even as it depicts violence, despair, and horror. The staging is demanding physically, but Guarino understands singers and they respond memorably.

Andromache Chalfant’s stage design transforms The Wilks Theater Space into a meta-courtroom with bleacher seats flanking either side of the stage. A long table appears periodically, functioning as a court desk or a prison interrogation space.

The final ensemble is a genuine tour de force. The opera begins with the Prosecutor asking “What makes a person a criminal?” and ends with the ensemble singing, “What makes a person endure years of injustice?” The music builds from a theme heard as Clarence Elkins schemes to get DNA from Earl Mann, who he knows is the real murderer of his mother-in-law.

And the Prosecutor, who could have devolved into a caricature of self-righteousness, sings, “If I doubt, I can’t do my job. And if I can’t do my job, no one in the room is safe.” He may be deluded by his power, but he’s allowed to be human.

The only negative was the performance space, whose seating capacity limited the total audience to less than 1,000. The opera’s five performances sold out five months in advance and Cincinnati Opera presented a free special event that included selections from the opera and a panel discussion with the creative team and exonoree Nancy Smith. Over 1,000 people attended.

A roar went up as Nancy Smith, Eugene Johnson and Rickey Jackson joined the cast for a bow.

At the conclusion of the Q&A session, Jackson was interviewed by Japanese NHK television, who were filming a documentary. He was asked how he remained so upbeat after nearly forty years in prison. “Well, you know, there are a lot more good people out there than bad,” he replied.

Blind Injustice is proof positive that opera can bear powerful witness to the social issues of our time, as well as to the strength of the human spirit in the face of mindless injustice. This is a piece that must be seen and heard throughout the US.

Photo: Philip Groshong