MILAN — The violins, violas and cellos played by the Orchestra of the Sea in its debut performance Monday at Milan’s famed Teatro alla Scala carry with them tales of desperation and redemption.
The wood that was bent, chiseled and gouged to form the instruments was recovered from dilapidated smugglers’ boats that brought migrants to Italy’s shores; the luthiers who created them are inmates in Italy’s largest prison.
The project, dubbed Metamorphosis, focuses on transforming what otherwise might be discarded into something of value to society: rotten wood into fine instruments, inmates into craftsmen, all under the principle of rehabilitation.
Two inmates were granted leave to see the concert featuring 14 prison-made stringed instruments playing a program that included works by Bach and Vivaldi. They sat in the royal box alongside Mayor Giuseppe Sala.
“I feel like Cinderella,” said Claudio Lamponi, as a friend approached in the lobby before the show with a bow-tie to complement his new suit. “This morning I woke up in an ugly, dark place. Now I am here.”
Far from the stately La Scala opera house, the Opera prison on Milan’s southern edge has over 1,400 inmates, including 101 mafiosi held under a strict regime of near-total isolation.
Other inmates, like Nikolae, who joined Lamponi at La Scala, are permitted more latitude. Since joining the prison’s instrument workshop in 2020, Nikolae — who declined to give his full name and prefers to skim over the charges that landed him in prison a decade ago — has become Opera’s master craftsman, graduating from crude instruments made out of plywood to harmonious violins worthy of La Scala’s stage.
“That’s how I began to speak with the wood,” Nikolae said recently in the prison workshop, which is filled with the smell of woodchips amid the rows of chisels and the faint hum of a jigsaw. “I started with very poor materials, and they saw I had good dexterity.”
Working on the instruments four to five hours a day gives him a sense of tranquility, he said, to reflect on “the mistakes I made” and skills that allow him to consider a future. “I am gaining self-esteem,’’ he said, “which is no small thing.”
One “graduate” of the prison workshops has completed his sentence and is working as a master luthier at another prison, in Rome.
“I hope one day, I can be recuperated, like this violin,” Nikolae said.
For another prisoner, who preferred to remain anonymous, making the instruments is a form of therapy, physical and psychological. He lived through two wars in his home country, which he also asked not to be identified because he served time as a political prisoner there and says he was beaten to the point of needing a crutch to walk.
He falls into a trance as he gently chisels the back of a violin’s front piece, measuring the thickness with an instrument to achieve perfect pitch. Dig too much, and it’s back to the drawing board. His own rocky journey to a new country has given him an understanding of the desperation that drove migrants onto unseaworthy boats.
“As I am working on these pieces, I think of the refugees that this wood transported, the women and children,” he said. “I think only of that as I work, what this piece of wood has lived.”
Lamponi and fellow inmate Andrea Volonghi have found new purpose in their life sentences, pulling apart the smugglers’ boats deposited in a yard among the prison blocks. Originally, the boats were being transformed into crucifixes and nativity scenes, but the inmates who were already trained luthiers thought: why not instruments?
So they now look for the prime pieces for the instrument workshop, removing rusted nails in the process. They send the more damaged wood to another prison in Rome, where prisoners make crucifixes for rosaries. In a full-circle moment, the rosaries are assembled by migrants at a Vatican workshop.
The boats arrive at Opera as they were seized, still containing remnants of the migrants’ lives, and with them a reminder of the 22,870 migrants that the U.N. says have died or gone missing on the perilous central Mediterranean crossing since 2014.
A shoulder bag with a disposable diaper, baby bottle and infant shoes sits on one prow alongside tins of anchovies and tuna from Tunisia and many plastic sandals.
“We don’t know what happened to them, but we hope they survived,’’ Volonghi said, considering a tiny pink sneaker with a well-known Western logo.
Each instrument takes 400 hours to create, from disassembling the boats to the finished product. While a classic violin made in the famed workshops of Cremona, an hour’s drive from Milan, will use fir and maple, the instruments of the sea are assembled from a softer African fir, the sun- and sea-drenched hues of blue, orange and red left as a reminder of the journey. The veneer of paint influences the instruments’ timbre.
“These instruments, which have crossed the sea, have a sweetness that you could not imagine,’’ said cellist Mario Brunello, a member of the Orchestra of the Sea. “They don’t have a story to tell. They have hope, a future.”
The House of the Spirit and Arts Foundation that first brought workshops for making stringed instruments to four Italian prisons a decade ago hopes the La Scala concert will be the beginning of a movement to bring Orchestra of the Sea performances first to the southern European countries bearing the brunt of migration, then to the northern capitals that hold the most sway in migrant policy.
“The beauty is that music overcomes all divisions, all ideologies, goes to the heart and soul of people, and one hopes that it makes people think,” said foundation president Arnoldo Mosca Mondadori. “Politicians need to think of this drama.”