Prisoner’s death inspires new opera

Posted Dec. 19, 2011, at 8:13 p.m.
Victor Valdez
Courtesy of Olga Rivera
Victor Valdez

BELFAST, Maine — When Maine State Prison inmate Victor Valdez died in custody in November 2009, it sparked an outcry among prisoner and human rights advocates.

They believed the frail, sickly 52-year-old prisoner from the Dominican Republic may have been badly beaten by guards before his death. The fact that he was cremated soon after without having an autopsy intensified the questions, and advocates called for more transparency from the Maine Department of Corrections as well as further investigation into the circumstances around Valdez’s demise.

And although the Maine Attorney General’s Office concluded the following year that his death was brought on by his serious medical conditions and was not a homicide, it did lead to a new state law requiring the state medical examiner to determine whether or not an autopsy is needed when prisoners die in state custody.

Valdez’s death also has led to art. George Swanson, a 78-year-old Episcopal priest and musician from the village of Manset on Mount Desert Island, is writing a folk opera titled “Natural Causes Killed Victor.” In it, a cast of nine singers use music to explore what happened that day at Maine State Prison. It is allegorical, Swanson said, adding that some early listeners have told him they see that Valdez’s death is akin to the passion and death of Christ.

“The death of Victor Valdez is a really natural opera, for a lot of reasons,” he said. “My hope is it will reach people’s hearts and change our godawful system of prisons in this country,” Swanson said.

Judy Plummer, the public affairs coordinator for the Maine Department of Corrections, said Monday that she had no comments about the opera or about the Valdez case.

“It is my hope that he is fair in his storytelling,” she said of Swanson.

“The facts were the facts, as far as what was found in regards to the investigation of [Valdez’s] death.”

The opera is set in a church, and will have its debut performance this spring at St. Saviour’s Episcopal Church in Bar Harbor. Auditions will take place in February for roles that include Valdez, a reporter, the governor, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, the prison warden and an advocate. Some characters are written to be more two-dimensional, or “cardboard cut-outs,” Swanson said.

The character Victor Valdez is a cipher at the heart of the opera. The only words he is heard to have spoken when the guards allegedly beat him, Swanson said, is “What did I do?” That became a song in the opera. And when the operatic Valdez dies on the altar steps, he is singing a song in Spanish that translates to “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal one, have mercy on us.”

In life, Valdez didn’t speak much English and was hard of hearing, which other inmates said caused him to not understand a guard’s instruction to go back to his cell from the prison day room during a temporary lock down.

The inmates wrote a total of seven letters to the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition about their fears for Valdez’s safety and then about his death.

They wrote that the guards used pepper spray on him and that he was essentially dragged to the prison’s Special Management Unit or SMU, which is similar to solitary confinement.

“I read and reread very carefully those letters,” Swanson said. “I found these letters incredibly human. These men, who saw this man so terribly abused, really loved him. And they don’t say it in the letters. They just say, ‘somebody should come to help this guy.’ There’s something so beautifully human about that.”

Swanson said he once served as a prison chaplain in California, and that he is not in any way anti-prison guard — but he is against prison practices that he sees as inhumane.

The story of Valdez’s death had resonated within him before he heard the opera Elmer Gantry on Maine Public Radio one Saturday afternoon. The new folk opera, based on the Sinclair Lewis novel, was riveting, Swanson said.

“It was sweaty, hot, crowded, hopeful, depressing,” he said. “I was absolutely hooked.”

He decided to begin composing his own opera, which he began to do last spring.

“I don’t think Victor’s death is insignificant, even though nobody much cared,” Swanson said.

Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said she has heard parts of the opera.

“I think it’s a very beautiful memory of Victor, and a way to honor him,” she said. “If there is to be no resolution as to his cause of death — as of now, there is no resolution — this takes it to a higher level. I think it will open up an awareness of what can happen to people during an incarceration. In a way, Victor’s life is given real meaning through this.”

When the opera is performed on May 4 and 5, 2012, all ticket proceeds will be used to fund food and fuel relief efforts on Mount Desert Island, and ticket sales will be managed by the Maine Seacoast Mission.

Now, St. Saviour’s Episcopal Parish is asking for donations to help offset the cost of having it filmed for a DVD to be made available nationally.

Swanson said he hopes that congregations of all faiths will adapt the opera for performance in their own sacred buildings.

For information, contact St. Saviour’s Parish at 288-4215 or info@stsaviours.me, or George Swanson at 415-464-7744 or george@katrinasdream.org.

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