“There are no innocent people in prison.”
So thought Mark Godsey when, as a new faculty member at Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law, he took over the school’s Innocence Project for a year. The Innocence Project aims to exonerate the wrongly convicted using DNA evidence and when his students did just that, his initial assumption crumbled.
Godsey, a Fairfield native who once served as a New York State prosecutor, is now a tireless advocate for the wrongfully convicted and for criminal justice reform. When he joined the University of Cincinnati’s College of Law in 2003, he cofounded the Ohio Innocence Project. Both the organization at NKU and at UC are part of a larger network of Innocence Projects across the country. Ohio’s chapter is one of the most successful, having helped exonerate 28 innocent Ohioans who collectively served 525 years.
Their stories inspired Cincinnati Opera’s CO Next program to commission Blind Injustice, a world premiere opera which tells the true stories of six people who were tried, convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, and who were ultimately freed by the Ohio Innocence Project.
Development for the opera began six months before the October 2017 publication of Godsey’s book Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Incarceration, which gives a harrowing account of human error and willful obstruction in the criminal justice system. In February 2017, following a happy-hour presentation by Ohio Innocence Project staff for the Young Professionals Choral Collective, YPCC cofounder and artistic director KellyAnn Nelson realized the potential for an opera that could involve the choral collective’s singers.
Blind Injustice consists of 12 principal roles, a chorus of 16 YPCC members and eight professional singers, plus an instrumental ensemble of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians, all of which are led by Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell in his Cincinnati Opera debut.
The production’s biggest challenge was the storyline itself: How to convey true stories of obstructed justice, years of incarceration, despair, hope and ultimately forgiveness in 90 minutes? And how best to make the words sing?
Librettist David Cote and director Robin Guarino worked with Godsey to choose four stories from over 13 hours of interviews conducted with Ohio Innocence Project exonerees and to incorporate material from his book. Of those they chose to hone in on, Nancy Smith was incarcerated for 15 years on charges of molesting children when she was a bus driver for a Head Start program; the East Cleveland Three — Eugene Johnson, Laurese Glover and Derrick Wheatt — served 20 years on charges of murder; Clarence Elkins, Ohio Innocence Project’s first exoneree, was in jail for seven and a half years for murder and rape; and Ricky Jackson put in 39 years, including time in solitary confinement.
The libretto is even more difficult reading than the book, in which Godsey’s damning accounts of justice denied are enough to make you throw it at a wall in frustration. That outrage is channeled into the opera’s sharply etched episodes that play out in prison cells and courtrooms.
“Each story could be a full-length opera,” Cote says. “So, we took fragments of the stories to see how they could form a structure.”
The Cincinnati Opera’s Director of Community Engagement Tracy Wilson videoed the interviews and worked with the creative team to ensure the libretto conveyed the exonerees’ personalities, especially their deep religious faith.
“We could do 90 minutes of absolute misery, but we were more interested in the human spirit,” Cote says. “These are real people who went through the worst injustices and they never abandoned hope. No one was eaten up with bitterness.”
Though the opera won’t see its world premiere until July 22 — all five of the performances at Music Hall’s Wilks Studio are sold out — its first audience, the exonerees themselves, was the most crucial. Last November, they attended an emotional workshop session. The exonerees were given a standing ovation.
In email responses, Jackson, Smith and Elkins expressed both surprise and pleasure that their stories were chosen. Jackson says that he thinks they were all impressed with the production.
“It was very emotional for all of us, I think,” Smith says. “I know it was for me.”
Composer Scott Davenport Richards embraced the challenge of fusing powerful words with song. Drawing on his professional experience as an actor, Richards derived thematic hooks from the libretto’s drama to create a distinct musical language. Influences from Jazz, Pop and Rap can be heard throughout, but Richards insists that the score is not pastiche.
“There’s energy and hopefulness that’s very different from what you find in modern opera,” he says.
Throughout the process Ohio Innocence Project’s Godsey says that whenever he would receive new recordings, that song would be his favorite — that is, until the next one was sent his way. “I don’t know how they did this and got it so right,” he says, “especially David’s libretto.”
Staged as a meta-courtroom, a long table is flanked by bleachers on either side. Of the design, Guarino explains that the theater itself is the court; the audience acts as the jury.
For the Cincinnati Opera, Blind Injustice is further validation of the art form’s potential to address difficult social issues and affirms the company’s commitment to engaging wider communities in creating and staging these works. Adjacent to the sold-out performances at Music Hall, the opera is hosting a free Opera Rap on July 17 — which is also at capacity — at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, which will feature selections from the production as well as a panel discussion with members of the creative team, two of the exonerees and CO's Artistic Director Evans Mirageas.
Didn't snag a ticket? Looking ahead, there is strong interest from several opera companies in staging Blind Injustice in their communities. Godsey isn’t surprised.
“Music magnifies feelings in ways that words alone can’t,” Godsey says. “This opera has a hundred times the impact that reading a legal document ever could.”
I asked Godsey how to spread that impact beyond “woke” audiences in Cincinnati and, more specifically, to members of the deeply flawed system whose actions result in wrongful convictions.
“Opera is very popular with a lot of judges,” Godsey says, without a hint of irony. “I’m convinced that if you’re going to make changes, it’s going to be decades long and it’s going to take things like this opera to make those changes.”
Performances of Blind Injustice are sold out. More info: cincinnatiopera.org.