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Love is in the aria


Love letters between a prisoner on death row and his female guard have been weaved into a dramatic new mini opera.

This captivating true story, which charts their passionate correspondence since her own imprisonment for conspiracy to murder a key witness in his trial, will get its first public showing later this month (Aug).

The letters were initially uncovered by Newcastle University artist Lyn Hagan as part of a project into prison tattoo designs.

She began writing to Mexican Mafia hit-man Tony Hernandez over three years ago while searching for a penpal in a US prison who could draw contemporary prison tattoos for her to embroider in exchange for art materials.

“I didn’t want to write to anyone who had hurt women or children, so that narrowed the options down a lot,” says Lyn. “It pretty much left me with gang members, who also tend to be heavily tattooed.”

Tony is on death row in San Quentin State Prison, California, for his alleged part in a gang murder. When Lyn went to visit him for her research he told her about how he met the love of his life Angela Parks, a sheriff’s deputy, while on remand at a detention centre before he was sentenced.

Their ‘affair’ (they hadn’t even kissed) was discovered by her suspicious fiancée, after he went through her bag while she was having a manicure. He found letters from Tony asking her to arrange for witnesses and a detective in his trial to be killed. On returning home, she was arrested for conspiracy to murder and is now serving 19 years in prison.

Tony gave their love letters to Lyn and also his drawings of Angela, which are being made into a short animation due to be aired on Channel 4 later this year.

Some of the drawings have been painstakingly stitched by hand onto a wedding dress, which will be worn in the opera – a process which took Lyn nearly two years.

In contrast, composer Agustín Fernández, of Newcastle University, had just two weeks to put together the score in time for Tony and Angela (Prison Letters) to start rehearsals for the opening night on 23 August. “Normally I would take four to six months to compose something this complex so I should have said ‘no’,” he says, “However, I was captivated by the story and this project is just too interesting to resist.

“You can tell from the letters that these are two people who really care about each other. When there are words to work with it is easier in some sense, but also harder, as you have a responsibility to do justice to those words, to carry their emotional state of mind into the music.”

The 15 minute opera, which is being performed at The Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, will be mainly in Angela’s words, whereas the animation is from Tony’s point of view.

“I found the women who have relationships with men on death row fascinating, almost teenage in how they approach it,” says Lyn, who is planning to make a further film around this subject. “Whenever I talk to people about this project, they presume that I’m one of these women.

“In the true sense, these are not ‘normal’ or ‘real’ relationships, but what is normal? For me, it’s a mainly creative relationship but I still found myself thinking ‘what would Tony think of that’ all the time when it came to telling his story so I had to back off a bit to be able to make the artwork. I am very conscious that I don’t want to exploit him, I still want to know he’s alright.”

Lyn met Tony’s family while in the US and even got a tattoo from his father, who is a tattoo artist. “So in many ways the story came full circle,” she says.

“Tony’s crime is not unique, but the story is,” she explains. “At its core it’s a love story and everyone can relate to that.”

There are limited free tickets available for Tony and Angela (Prison Letters) on 23 August at 7pm and 8pm at The Hatton Gallery, Newcastle. Book via email, stating how many tickets you require and for which time (7 or 8pm). Tickets can be collected from The Hatton Gallery.

published on: 12 August 2013