A series of opera works exploring virtue among prisoners.

The Virtues is a contemporary opera project that reimagines virtue through the eyes of current prisoners. It consists of seven discreet audio visual projects created in collaboration with prisoners from around the world that will take place between 2013 and 2053, each project focused on one of the seven cardinal virtues. Using opera, street knowledge and video, a series of live performances and video works will be produced for audiences inside and outside the prison walls. 

Inspired by the forced imaginative world of prisoners, The Virtues uses contemporary video techniques as a platform for extending viewers perception of liberty and meaning. The spatial and conceptual limitations of a prison cell are foundational to the works aesthetic and methodology. Ongoing development of the material seeks out ways to present operatic and video work in a way that reflects the sensory experience of a prisoner viewing the outside world from within. This is achieved using multi screen projection format devised by Brennan in Poland 2014, and multi channel audio in an immersive panoramic audio visual experience.

The first in the series, JUDITH’S RETURN, is set in Poland and explores the virtue of courage. It takes it’s title from the Raine Maria Rilke poem of the same name, whose text serves as the libretto for the accompanying operatic work. The work combines the voices of current prisoners with panoramic 3 screen video and a wild new-neo-romantic opera for church organ, synthesizer, soprano and drums.


The premiere of this work will be presented within Białołęka Prison, Warsaw to the prisoners whose voices narrate the video. It will be played on three projectors onto the walls around them in surround sound, immersing them in the landscapes of their homeland. Negotiations are currently underway for the premier of the work to be presented in 2018 at a major Australian Festival.

The music was developed and recorded by Brennan and Pospieszalski in Gidle church, a small and highly regarded pilgrimage site in Southern Poland, and sung by soprano Lia Ikkos-Serrano (UK).

Shot on location in some of Poland’s most mysterious corners, the work has been created in partnership with Białołęka Prison, Warsaw, one of Europes largest detention centres. Working with a Polish translator and sound recordist James ran a six week program in the prisons gymnasium with nine males currently imprisoned at Białołęka, some of whom are serving long sentences. The prisoners were invited to contribute as experts and discuss their own ideas of crime and virtue. From these unrehearsed conversations that drew on personal experiences, Polish history and the moral codes of the street, a moving and philosophical narrative voice emerges that carries the 30 minute video work on a wild ride of the imagination, conveyed from the prisoners point of view.


From the highest mountain peak to the grimiest bombed out warehouses of the holy city of Czestochowa, through drug-fuelled parties and empty castles, the video flies with a third-eye view through the iconic and hidden landscapes of the prisoners’ country, placing their visions and voices in the ‘world outside’ the walls of the prison. These intimate ethnographic records inhabit the spaces the prisoners have left behind once again in defiance and yearning.

Judith’s Return will be presented in Australia and Poland in performance by co-composers Szczepan Pospieszalski and J R Brennan. The work will premiere to the prisoners who took part in the work inside Białołęka Prison as well as chosen organ venues in 2018.


Link to audio fragments from recordings at Gidle Church, Poland