PRODUCTIONS FOR PRISONERS. Wasfi Kani OBE is the founder and CEO of Grange Park Opera and Pimlico Opera, through which she enriches the lives of British prisoners and primary school children by exposure to music. Pimlico Opera has presented co-productions with prisons since 1987 and has taken more than 60,000 members of the public into prison. Each week, its Primary Robins project gives a singing class to 2,000 children in schools in deprived areas.
Founded by Wasfi Kani in 1998, Grange Park Opera has become of the major summer opera festivals in Europe. In 2017 it was relocated to a purpose built five-storey opera house modelled on La Scala, Milan, seating 700.
Ths interview is also available as a podcast.
Wasfi Kani, how did your love of music develop?
When I was 16 I loved playing violin and the piano. I got into the Royal Academy of Music but then I was told that if you go to the Royal Academy your only option is to become a player, but if you go to Oxford University many options will open themselves up to you. Oxford does actually change your life. Suddenly you see a much bigger world and meet people doing many different subjects.
What is your family background?
My parents, Indian Muslim refugees, lost everything when India was partitioned and Pakistan was created and came to the UK. I became a Catholic when I was at Oxford partly because the church played a massive part in the development of Western music.
What did you do after Oxford?
My family didn’t have any money and I became a computer programmer. Programming computers is like doing a puzzle. If it’s wrong you have to find the mistake, and as soon as one puzzle is correct you go on to the next.
How did you return to music?
When I was 30 I had this Damascene moment that when I was 80 and looked back I would regret not having done more with my music.
What did you do?
I had conducting lessons and started conducting. I was lodging with some very kind people (Dick & Janice Taverne …. he is now Lord Taverne ) in Pimlico and in 1987 I created this tiny opera company. I created an orchestra and put on a little production of ‘Figaro’ in St Luke’s Church on Sydney Street.
Then you became well known?
I did operas for the National Trust in a garden or in a tent. People enjoyed it and then I thought people in prison might enjoy opera.
I’d been to a grammar school in London located behind Wormwood Scrubs prison so it was very familiar to me. I wrote the governor a letter, saying I wanted to come and do an opera in the prison for the prisoners.
What did he say?
He said yes. In 1990 I did ‘Figaro’ and all the prisoners were there. Many people in prison can’t even read, let alone understand Italian, but they could tell that something good was going on. At the end they leapt to their feet and, because at this time there had been a recent riot going on at Strangeways prison in Manchester, all the guards thought this was going to be another riot and got very agitated. But then the prisoners just sat down and filed out.
“A prison is meant to be making a person into a useful member of society. In order for that to happen they need education.”
Wasfi Kani wrote to the governor of Wormwood Scrubs prison (shown here) saying she wanted to come and do an opera in the prison for the prisoners.
What was your next step?
To try and do a production with the prisoners in it. The prisoners liked it when we performed to them, so then we put on a show where they were the main performers. We had to teach them everything. They talk to their families about it, and I said their families could come to the production.
Why did you want the prisoners to be performers?
Because you work with them for a long period of rehearsals, which they do consistently over weeks.
What kind of prisoners did you first work with?
What they call ‘lifers’. These people don’t necessarily spend their life in prison, but if you kill someone you get a life sentence.
How did you feel working with killers?
Ultimately we are all the same. If my life had gone a different way I probably could’ve killed someone. There are 85,000 people in prison in Britain today and about 5,500 of them are serving life for murder. Of those only 70 will never come out of prison.
Why did you choose to work with them?
I didn’t. The governor said he wanted us to do this project with the lifers because they have to deal with the idea of being in prison for 10 years or more and might benefit the most from it.
How do you choose the performers?
We don’t audition them, we just walk around the prison and say we’re doing a play and there’s singing in it and if you want to be in it, put your name down. You get this bunch of people together and they all find their own level.
Is it only men or only women or is it a mix?
In Britain there are, as I said, 85,000 people in prison. There are no joint prisons and there are only 13 prisons for women. The women’s prison population is very small, only about 5,000.
Do you have both men and women in the productions?
Yes. If I do it in a men’s prison I have professional women. When I’m in a women’s prison, which is where I am now at HMP Bronzefield, we employ professional men.
Are these professionals at ease working with killers?
Most of the people in prison in Britain today who are serving life sentences have killed someone they know. Very few just go around killing random people, and they get a “whole life sentence”: the whole rest of their life has to be away from society. Generally when you’re serving a life sentence you get to a stage when you are assessed for release. The central part in your assessment is that you have shown remorse and have considered in depth the implications of what you did.
“I wrote the governor a letter, saying I wanted to come and do an opera in the prison for the prisoners.”
Why are there many more men than women in prison?
Society doesn’t want to put women into prison is because their children get put into care and through no fault of their own end up without any family support. And there are more men who kill than women. They’ve got too much testosterone. Lots of men seem to have intended just to have a fight. Each story is a waste of the person who died and a waste of the person who did the killing.
Can they recover?
A prison is meant to be making a person into a useful member of society. In order for that to happen they need education. Half the prison population has a reading age of less than an 11 year old. There is a huge problem of literacy. How many jobs are out there if you can’t read? The most important thing is that they receive an education.
Do they teach them how to read?
Yes, and often another prisoner teaches them how to read. They usually have a few prisoners who will help the new prisoners who just arrive. If you stood where you saw new prisoners come in you would cry. I’ve known hundreds of prisoners and every time I go into prison I always learn something. Each prisoner has a different sort of tragic story to tell.
Are the prisons clean?
The prisons are cleaned by the prisoners. The prisoners are the cleaners so they want to live in clean circumstances.
What about the food?
They have kitchens where the prisoners work. They’re cooking for their own people so there is a real motive to be serving good food.
What about drugs?
There’s a lot of drug dealing but it’s not all from the prisoners. A lot of drugs come into prison through the staff. If you come in addicted to heroin you’ll be given whatever drug is used to get you off your heroin and you’ll be monitored. At some point the prisoner says okay I’m going to come off that drug and I’ll have to do cold turkey but I’ll do it. And quite often during our project we have prisoners who say they’re going to do cold turkey and come off all drugs. They no doubt feel terrible for a number of weeks, but because they’re doing our project it gets them through that bad time.
When they leave prison do some of them become professional singers?
One guy who was an exceptional talent has been in quite a lot of West End shows, but my purpose in doing this is better expressed by the one who sent me this text message: “Just to say thank you. I am out now. I took part in Les Miserables as the leader of the revolution as a lifer. You gave me hope and acceptance. Thank you.”
The entrance to the new opera house that Wasfi Kani’s Grange Park Opera built in Surrey.
Modelled as a miniature La Scala, the horseshoe-shaped venue is in the grounds of a beautiful manor house.
West Horsley Place, an enchanting 15th century house by the Surrey hills, is now home to Grange Park Opera’s elegant summer festival.
The 2019 production of Don Carlo was first presented in Grange Park Opera’s former home in Hampshire in 2016.
Wasfi Kani’s Pimlico Opera stages musical theatre in prisons.
An aerial view of Bronzefield prison, one of only 13 women’s prisons in the UK, where Pimlico Opera’s production of ‘Hairspray’ will be performed in early March 2020.
“I’ve seen some astonishingly brilliant people working in prisons.”
When do people come in from outside to see the performances?
We first perform for the prisoners and then have the general public in. They don’t mix the public and the prisoners. Often there are 300 people in the auditorium and a handful of them will be related to somebody in the show. Security wise the most tricky moment is making sure no prisoners leave the prison with the public at the end of the performance.
When do you do the prison work?
In January, February and March.
What about your very stylish and sophisticated Grange Park Opera?
It has recently relocated from Hampshire to Surrey. In eleven months in 2016 and 2017 I built a massive five story opera house, modelled on the design of La Scala in Milan, where I put on some very big operas. 15,000 people come in a season that lasts about six or seven weeks.
Why only six to seven weeks?
In May the weather’s really bad and many people go away for the whole of August. In June and July the weather is quite good, so that’s our window. The whole idea of opera in the country, which was invented by Glyndebourne, is that you enjoy the gardens.
You also work with children?
We do a lot of work in primary schools with children up to the age of 11. Many schools in Britain don’t have any music classes. We give them a teacher who will give a half hour singing class every week of the year. Suddenly you create music in a school that had no music. They learn songs and then they give a concert.
Are you unique in your profession?
There are many charities working in prisons but I don’t think anyone else works in prisons quite like we do with this huge project which is very disruptive to the prison. But then the staff of the prison realise that these projects are good and allow other charities to come in and do other work. Our work is often a catalyst for other projects.
Are the prison staff motivated?
Many are really motivated and believe they could get the prisoners to turn their lives around. They are very caring and nurturing, but they also have to follow the rules and make sure the guy does what he’s meant to do. I’ve seen some astonishingly brilliant people working in prisons.
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‘Hairspray’ is at Bronzefield Prison, Woodthorpe Rd, Ashford, Surrey TW15 3JZ
Performances: Sat 7, Sun 8, Wed 11, Thu 12, Sat 14, Sun 15 March 2020
HMP Bronzefield, Surrey is one of only 13 women’s prisons in the UK. The project, costing around £200,000, receives no public subsidy. Five weeks of intensive rehearsal – all day, every weekday – produce a show of the highest quality. The gym is transformed into a theatre with a full lighting rig and orchestra. All parties are changed: public, prisoners, staff.
Grange Park Opera, West Horsley Place, Epsom Rd, West Horsley, Leatherhead, Surrey KT24 6AN
2020 summer season from 4 June to 19 July.
The new opera house is located in a magical woodland on the estate of the 14th century house. There are magnificent formal gardens and a restaurant inside the historic house. The audience arrive from 4pm and, champagne in hand, walk on the very stone flags trod by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
The season combines the traditional and the unexpected. In 2020 is a world première, The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko, promising to be one of the most discussed events of the summer. Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, one of the grandest of all Italian grand operas, presents an array of vocal powerhouses including Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. Then there is perennial favourite La Bohème, rip-roaring Meet Me in St Louis, and, on the very last night gorgeously costumed guest artists from the Royal Ballet show off technical brilliance, versatility and humour.