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The Orchestra of the Sea at Milan’s ‘Teatro alla Scala’

A voice for the nameless thousands

 A voice for the nameless thousands  ING-008
23 February 2024

Raising awareness through emotions. This was the dream that recently came true, letting all the colours of the human being burst into music, restoring joy, even though it re-emerged from, and in, suffering. On Monday, 12 February, for the first time ever, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala hosted the Orchestra del Mare (Orchestra of the Sea). The ensemble features stringed instruments made by prison inmates using wood from the boats on which migrants travel daily to escape war, persecution and poverty in their homeland.

In one of the world’s most famous theatres, violins, violas, cellos and double basses built in the Opera prison and in Naples’ Secondigliano prison, were used to play Bach, Vivaldi and more, to give a voice back to the voiceless, to those who never made it. They became spiritual lifeblood, connecting the living and the dead. The project which gave life to this musical and cultural challenge is called “Metamorphosis”. It began in the lab of the Opera prison in 2021, when the House of the Spirit and the Arts Foundation, established by poet and editor Arnoldo Mosca Mondadori, asked the Italian government that instead of disposing of the boats arriving in Lampedusa imbued with drowned hopes, they be transformed into living memory. So the first “Violin of the Sea” was born, played for the first time in front of Pope Francis with an original composition by Nicola Piovani, titled “Canto del legno” (Song of the wood). The “Metamorphosis” project also received a medal from the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, on the occasion of the 2022 Venice Film Festival.

The Foundation recovers the wood washed up on the beaches of Lampedusa, which the people in the prisons transform into musical instruments, to bring out notes capable of tearing from the mare nostrum and from the abyss of life, the naked humanity of women and men who have hoped and who continue to hope for a new life. “Our hope”, says Mondadori, “is that, through music and beauty, a sign can be offered to counteract the culture of indifference and rejection”.

These instruments, which hold tears, sweat and desperation, but also prayers and hope, were played at La Scala by exceptional musicians. The concert began with a reading of an unpublished text, “La memoria del legno” (the memory of wood) by Paolo Rumiz, accompanied by cello improvisations from Giovanni Sollima and Mario Brunello. Then Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3, Vivaldi’s “Winter” and pieces by Fritz Kreisler, Kevin Volans and Sollima himself. Also performing was the other “instrument of the sea”, Gilles Apap’s violin, as well as the 13 musicians of the Annunciata Academy, directed by Riccardo Doni. Additionally, artist Mimmo Paladino offered his installation of “I Dormienti” as the backdrop. It showed a scene evoking the tragedy of shipwrecked migrants.

The concert was broadcast live in the prisons of Opera, Secondigliano, Monza and Rebibbia, to allow inmates to attend the important event, in which they played a key part, together with the prison guards. Concert proceeds support the Metamorphosis project — whose fruit is the Orchestra of the Sea — helping to finance luthier workshops in the Opera and Secondigliano prisons, but also workshops in Rebibbia and Monza, where the wood from the boats is used to create religious objects, like rosaries.

The evening was dedicated to Marisa Baldoni, thanks to whom the House of the Spirit and the Arts Foundation was born in 2012. It is thanks to her that the lab inside the Opera prison has become a place of freedom and hope for many inmates. “I hope”, concludes Mondadori, “that this Orchestra, which will soon be enriched with new musical instruments typical of the Mediterranean tradition, will be able to travel to many countries, involve composers and musicians, and propose new music that can help us understand that the question of migrants is not an emergency nor an invasion but a preparation for the future”.

Alicia Lopes Araújo