In Fresnes prison, prisoners in concert with the Radio France orchestra

Guided by lyrical singer Johanne Cassar and cellist Jérémie Maillard, ten prisoners sang on Tuesday in front of around forty detainees, before a broadcast of the concert on Radio France.

On stage, alongside the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, ten singers make their entrance. Serious, a little embarrassed, they intone: “The sky is over the roof, so blue, so calm” from Fresnes prison, where they are being held.

Lit by neon lights, a vast old chapel with windows protected by dark blue curtains serves as a concert hall for these young men in tracksuits, who give their first concert of classical music in front of an audience of around forty other prisoners, Tuesday 5 April, south of Paris. Their voices are guided by the soprano Johanne Cassar and carried by the violins, cellos, bassoon, double bass and drums, of the twelve musicians of the Radio France orchestra.

It makes the thugs outside, vocalizations inside

An inmate on stage

between the pieces A stealthy tear by Gaetano Donizetti or Come on Thought by Giuseppe Verdi, the singers, standing or seated astride plastic chairs, take the floor:

– “Now we have to hold on,” said an inmate.

– Receive visitors, continues another.

– Create a routine, add a third.

– To build up muscle.

– And get out of his cell, get out of his cell, get out of his cell.

– So keep the desire, I’m not a nut number.

On the wooden bleachers, the public applauds, then laughs frankly when one of them adds: “It makes the thugs outside, vocalizations inside”.

This is the second time that Johanne Cassar, artistic director of the Coloratura association, has led the project musical imprintafter a first experience at the Fleury-Mérogis women’s remand center (Essonne) in 2018. “For us, classical musicians, music is a passion, a job, but it’s also really a strength”explains the artist, with natural authority, who does not hesitate to go on stage to mingle with the prisoners, at the time of the recall. “By bringing this music, with all the demands it requires, we try to transmit this strength to people who are obviously in difficulty”.

During fifteen workshops, instrumentalists played in front of the prisoners, who discovered and learned extracts from the opera, thanks to the collaboration of the pianist Emmanuel Christien, but also of Radio France and in particular of the cellist Jérémie Maillard. After the concert, the group will also record a piece specially created by Francesco Filidei. All organized by the Prison Service for Integration and Probation (SPIP) and supported by the Art Explora Foundation.

“These workshops reveal a part of intimacy”welcomes Camille Blumberg from the SPIP, confident of having “felt to really see” the prisoners when they discovered the orchestra, their shell “big tough guys” leaving room for sincere respect in the face of a hitherto unknown universe. This concert “very touching” shows that prisoners “are capable of surpassing themselves”adds the director of the prison, Jimmy Delliste.

In the old chapel, Rayan, a 24-year-old defendant with hair tied in a duvet, sings without looking at his notes. (His first name, like those of the other detainees, has been changed, editor’s note). Initially, the young man, enrolled in the workshop so as not to be “locked up 22 hours a day”had stayed “perplexed” in front of the soprano determined to make them sing: classical, when he listens to rap? Italian, when he doesn’t understand anything about it? And his embarrassment during the first warm-ups of voice… Today, Rayan radiates. Her “good memory” he promoted it “chief” with “responsabilities”: “when the group has a hole, they follow me”.

Moussa, too, has evolved. The convict in his twenties had first registered to have “additional remissions”. Then, at a rehearsal at which theAFP was able to attend, the youngster, dressed in PSG jogging, closed his eyes while singing, as if overthrown. opera “make laugh” but also makes you escape, he delivered: “You really let yourself go, it’s like you’re transporting yourself”. On D-Day, Moussa is however absent from the concert, due to“indiscipline”.

Karim, 20 years old, him “out tomorrow”after fifteen months of detention. “It’s a new start” because he now considers himself more capable: “Before coming here, I never thought I could sing in front of people”. Despite the “lump in the belly” from the first notes, the soon-to-be-released prisoner freed himself “felt in his element” with the orchestra, these people from “outside”. Moved? “It’s a big emotional word, but yes it’s fine, it’s fine, I’m happy”.

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