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How opera is giving a powerful voice to migrants

A series of performances focus on the harrowing, human experiences of migrants, getting beyond the numbers reported on the news.

Every Tuesday, the Ministry of Defence publishes a series of figures to gov.uk, the government’s online portal. For the most part, these numbers sit quietly on the webpage, sporadically quoted by columnists with copy to file. Their existence is an irrelevance to some – an inconvenience to others – and, by and large, they are viewed in abstraction.

For those outside Kent, it is difficult to imagine what 19 “small boats” containing 915 migrants actually looks like, or what happens after “detection”; the official term used in the data collection. What is not captured in these numbers are the individual and collective stories of real, harrowing human experience. The treacherous journey undertaken by displaced people – 4,540 arrived in the UK via unofficial channel crossings between January and March alone (and that’s just those who were “detected”) – is a current theme on stages just now.

Scottish Opera (SO) recently held a much-praised promenade production of Bernstein’s Candide, an operetta based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella about a refugee’s chaotic scramble for truth, and Welsh National Opera (WNO) premiered Migrations, a new work covering many aspects of relocation – from The Mayflower to the experience of Indian doctors working in the NHS – that is about to tour venues across the UK (October 2-November 26).

The channel crossing itself was referenced in Dalia, Garsington Opera (GO)’s latest community project that brought together singers of all ages from across Buckinghamshire. Simple choreography involving blue material evoked turbulent seas, with the title character pushed back and forth across the stage as part of her painful flashbacks.

Like WNO and SO – who worked with the Welsh Refugee Council and Maryhill Integration Network respectively – GO sought expertise from Gulwali Passarlay, activist and author of 2015’s The Lightless Sky in order to ensure a sympathetic portrayal. The opera delves into reactions to asylum seekers, from unintended insensitivity (Dalia’s foster mother fixates on falafel, mistaking the dish to be Syrian) to outright prejudice (“tax-paying” villagers who don’t want a refugee in their neighbourhood). 

Migration is a key theme in London Philharmonic Orchestra’s upcoming series A Place to Call Home. It includes the premiere of Human Archipelago, a cello concerto by Inbal Segev (October 1) and Journey to the Sea (November 26), a piece by Boston-based Afghan pianist-composer Arson Fahim, who escaped from the Taliban last summer. These are the latest composers in a long list of those who have endured exile – such tension can be heard in the music by Rachmaninov, Schoenberg, Bartók and many, many others. 

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Despite the rhetoric from some far-right groups, few people choose to enter a country illegally. A friend relates the story of his arrival in the UK in the back of a van, in less than favourable circumstances. “We were told to run the moment the doors opened,” he remembers. (He no longer resides here, in case anyone from the Home Office reads this.)

Some situations are particularly horrifying – Freedom from Torture helps asylum seekers and refugees who have suffered the very worst terrors rebuild their lives in the UK. Members of the organisation’s Write to Life group have joined with musicians of NWLive Arts for a special one-off concert at Kings Place in London (September 30). Finding My Voice fuses sounds from the West African Griot, Middle East and Indian Punjabi tradition with European classical and features cellist Laura van der Heijden and tabla player Kuljit Bhamra.

@claireiswriting

This article is taken from the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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