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“Natural Causes Killed Victor: A Death in Solitary,” a folk opera by George Swanson (DVD, 55 minutes)

Written by George Swanson, a folksinger and Episcopal priest, this unusual folk opera tells how Victor Valdez, a sickly, working-class immigrant from the Dominican Republic, died in 2009 in solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison – and how the causes of his death were covered up.

The state prosecutor who investigated the case determined that Victor died of “natural causes.” True, he needed kidney dialysis and had other ailments, but a number of other prisoners said he had not been given proper medical care and had been physically abused. In fact, one prisoner had predicted to an advocate that the abuse would likely kill Victor.

I wrote the newspaper article, “A Prison Obituary: The Tragedy of Victor Valdez,” which was the basis for the opera. George Swanson has long worked with me and many others in a campaign to end or restrict the use of solitary in Maine and nationally. He successfully convinced the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) to take on the issue.

NRCAT’s founding director, the Rev. Richard Killmer, said the opera “shows the immorality of solitary confinement.” Bonnie Kerness, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch, called it an “amazing” production.

The performance in the video demonstrates what can be done with this work in a small community by an unpaid cast. It is amateur – some singers are good, others sketchy – but this quality gives it charm and paradoxical power. The feeling for the subject on the part of the singers – new to the issue – is evident.

The songs have their origin in beloved folk or ecclesiastical music, but Swanson has a talent for Kurt Weill-like lyrics that succinctly, vividly tell a story. The production takes place in a beautiful old church.

To me, the most plaintive line in the opera – taken from prisoners’ testimony – is Victor’s cry, as guards dragged him to his death: “What did I do? What did I do?”

The answer: He was a brown-skinned, handicapped, sick immigrant who spoke poor English and was a pain in the ass to the guards.

“May God have mercy on all of us involved in this callous display of disrespect for human life and dignity,” commented Rev. Stan Moody, the prison chaplain, when Victor died.

Ed. Note: This is the first time PLN has published an opera review.

A DVD of the premiere performance of this opera is free to prisoners, their families, advocates and nonprofits; $10.00 to others. For a DVD, email or write to me at 8 Winter St., No. 1, Augusta, ME 04330. Included is a 36-page illustrated booklet with the libretto and background information. Checks should be made payable to George Swanson. Disclosure: Swanson pays my sideline consulting business a small monthly fee to stimulate showings and new productions.

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