Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

By Mark Godsey

In early 2017, the young professionals committee of the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) agreed to host a happy hour with the Young Professionals Choral Collective (YPCC). The idea was for the two groups to have a fun night of networking, social justice, and song over a few beers.

KellyAnn Nelson, the founding director of YPCC, was intrigued by OIP’s work in freeing the innocent. She thought the two groups could collaborate on something bigger than a happy hour— much bigger. She reached out to her contacts at Cincinnati Opera to see if the Opera wanted to work with YPCC to somehow share OIP’s message through music.

Following discussions about which of the 28 OIP cases of innocents freed would make the best material for storytelling through song, the Opera sent a written proposal outlining the basic concept for a full-blown original opera called Blind Injustice, to make its world premiere in July 2019 in Music Hall. From that point forward, the project moved forward in harmonious allegro.

The Opera’s creative team, including librettist David Cote and stage director Robin Guarino, interviewed the six exonerees whose stories would be told in the opera. I’ll never forget how moved the creative team was when they first sat down with the exonerees and started hearing their stories face to face. I already knew that these six exonerees were living embodiments of the heroic protagonists that writers strive to create in works of operatic fiction. You rarely hear stories of the tragedy and triumph, and perseverance and grace, that come from the real people among us, rather than from the imaginations of Hollywood fiction. I witnessed the artistic team’s gradual realization that they were working with some pretty special non-fiction, flesh-and-blood characters who were perfect for the opera stage.

In early 2018, I got the first draft of the libretto from Cote. Then, songs from composer Scott Davenport Richards started trickling in. I am amazed at the talent of Cote and Richards and am impressed with how the creative team took these complicated stories, pared them down to their essentials, and transformed them into words and music that makes them soar to a place greater than the sum of their parts.

Having an opera created about OIP’s work is very important and meaningful to our organization. Art and music, along with film and television, are catalysts for widespread social and cultural transformations. These media open hearts and minds and lead to reform in a way that the best legal briefs and courtroom arguments cannot.

I am grateful for this opportunity to spread the word about the societal problem of wrongful convictions. But the most remarkable thing about this opera is that it tells the stories of six incredible people in their own words. Their voices were silenced for more than 120 years of imprisonment combined. The opera Blind Injustice has not only given them back their voices, but it has done so in a way that will be heard through the rafters of Music Hall and beyond.

Mark Godsey is the cofounder and director of the Ohio Innocence Project, author of the book Blind Injustice, and a professor of criminal law at the University of Cincinnati.