Rising opera singer Sara LeMesh brought her musical talents to San Quentin State Prison, mesmerizing her captive audience with her singing and charm.
In the prison’s Catholic chapel, LeMesh used the power of her soprano voice to entertain an audience of more than 100 as she ran through a set of 19 songs on a Sunday evening in August.
The men appeared focused as LeMesh sang, relaxing them all into a contemplative mood.
“I never thought I’d see this in prison,” Benito Sosa, 32, said. He arrived at San Quentin six months ago. “I think it’s cool.”
LeMesh resonated in four languages: Italian, French, Latin and English. The first eight songs, beginning with “Caro mio ben,” were sung in Italian or French. The last was “Nuits d’etoiles.”
“It’s a French song, and it’s about being outside on a starry night,” she said. “What’s the point in singing in a foreign language if you can’t share something?”
“It’s beautiful,” Daniel Arciniega, 51, said. He arrived at San Quentin five months ago. “Excellent songs. Her personality is nice. I appreciate the program.”
Following her skill singing in French, LeMesh switched to her native language, English. She said many people’s reference to opera is that it’s sung in Italian. “There’s a lot of opera in English.”
I Attempt from Love’s Sickness was the first song sung in English.
LeMesh followed up with Music for a While. “It’s about how music can be really healing and make such a big difference,” she said,
The music is said to be so powerful in this song that it can make the snakes drop from Medusa’s head.“The Healing Power of Music” is how the organization Bread & Roses promoted this concert, just as it does many of its other shows. Lisa Starbird works with the organization and brought LeMesh into the prison to sing. She too pronounced the singing very enjoyable.
By the time LeMesh had completed singing 15 songs, Starbird noticed, “She hasn’t taken a sip of water.”
Starbird has been bringing music into the prison through Bread & Roses for five and a half years. In total, however, the organization has been bringing music to San Quentin for more than 40 years.
“This is a religious piece,” LeMesh said of the song “Et Exultavit Spiritus Meus.” “Most religious songs, particularly Catholic, are Latin. (This is) a prayer, but a very uplifting one.”
She said Bach wrote it.
“You can tell it’s a prayer,” she added. Next was Laurie’s Song, a four-minute piece from the opera The Tender Land. It’s about a girl who is afraid but excited to leave home and see the world. LeMesh conveyed the girl’s fear singing, “Once I thought I’d never go outside this fence.” As the piano recording played melodically through the chapel speakers with chord progressions alternating in and out, there was a long rest that allowed LeMesh time to sing a cappella.
“This is an Irish tune about the perspective of an older man,” LeMesh said of the song “The Salley Gardens.” It tells the story of a man who let go of love when he was young.
On the song Ave Maria, LeMesh said to the audience, “If you want to, close your eyes or hum along if you know it.”
When the sound of chords played as arpeggios on the piano recording, it was obvious to some musicians the song was Prelude in C.
“I didn’t realize how moving and emotionally powerful opera is,” inmate David Rodriquez, 22, said. “I want to hear more of it.” He said he wants to purchase some opera CDs.
“Amazing Grace” was the last song in the set. Because it was a familiar piece, the inmates sang along. Afterward, they gave LeMesh a loud standing ovation, applauding and cheering loudly.
For an encore, LeMesh played the piano and sang. Her bottle of water placed atop the piano was still full as she sang a piece about California. She received a second round of applause and another standing ovation.
“She’s an absolutely awesome singer and performer,” inmate Jeff Atkins, 56, said. “I couldn’t leave. You don’t expect that big sound out of someone that little.”
After the performance, LeMesh graciously shook hands and spoke with men who stood in line to thank her.
“You’re angelic,” said an inmate who introduced himself as Anthony.
LeMesh said she started singing at age 9. At 13, her music teacher told her mother that LeMesh had a classical voice so she could no longer adequately teach her. That’s when LeMesh said she realized she had a gift.
“I’m lucky my parents took time to research music for me,” she said.
According to her website, LeMesh has attended music festivals all over the world, to “hone my craft” in places such as Salzburg, France; Santa Barbara, California; and Lenox, Massachusetts. She’s also performed at the Mendocino Music Festival and American Bach Soloists.
Last year, LeMesh performed at the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar, Tanglewood Music Center, Music Academy of the West, Aspen Music Festival & School, Song Fest, and Mozarteum International Summer Academy.
According to the New York Times, LeMesh, a Marin County native, returned to her home in the Bay Area after earning her master’s degree. She later sang with the San Francisco Opera during its 2015 season. She also found time to learn computer coding.
“I have loved learning about coding and software and now understand that my desire to analyze music is not that different from breaking down code,” she said.
LeMesh holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Rice University and a Master of Music degree from the Bard College-Conservatory of Music.