Youth opera team work with refugees in Italy

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Earlier this year the creative team of Belongings, Glyndebourne’s latest youth opera, travelled to the small town of Sarteano in Italy to work with young people in refugee communities and artists from around the world.

The visit was organised as part of The Complete Freedom of Truth (TCFT), an international youth-led project which aims to develop an awareness of disconnected young people across Europe and to create a space to bring about change through the use of arts and culture.

The contemporary global concerns at the heart of the work of TCFT are very much echoed in the subject matter of Belongings which explores child migration alongside the evacuation of children during World War II.

The team had the opportunity to work with around 70 young men from a variety of backgrounds including Nigerian, Gambian, Sudanese and Bengali who had been in Tuscany for between three months and a year.

Voices through images

‘Working with them to sing, make music and play was incredibly powerful.’ says director Lucy Bradley, ‘it was a reminder of the power of music and drama to unite across language barriers and cultural divides’.

Lucy and the team worked with the participants to create small pieces of ‘image theatre’, where they would act out a visual tableaux based on a specific theme. The participants responded in very different ways to the same themes, as Lucy explains: ‘When asked to make an image called “the journey” one of the groups made an image of two men being overseen by a policeman, while another group depicted four men walking together, arms around each other, offering support and solidarity. Some of the group seemed ready to share elements of their own experiences in this way and it was clear that theatre and image-making on a more regular basis could give them a voice in a way that language could not.’

‘These sessions were incredibly beneficial for my process on Belongings as an opportunity to engage directly with individuals who had undertaken difficult journeys to leave home and to travel across Europe to Italy. The images the groups created will also feed directly into the production so that the men we met are represented in some way on stage’ says Lucy.

Beyond the language barrier

Lewis Murphy, composer of Belongings, and Glyndebourne’s Young Composer-in-Residence, was also part of the team in Sarteano. ‘We spent our visit connecting on a very fundamental level, since our communication through conventional means was hindered by several language barriers. This connection is what Belongings is all about’ he says.

‘Belongings explores the themes of displacement and connection, both of which feel particularly current today’ says Lewis, ‘We live in a society in which important decisions are being made based on self-interest and distrust of outsiders, suggesting that our leaders have learned nothing from the events of the last hundred years. A “them and us” attitude has never solved anything, whether it has been towards evacuees during World War II or Middle-Eastern and African refugees in the present-day. Simple human connection is the key.’

‘In Sarteano I was amazed at just how quickly ‘them and us’ became simply “us”’ explains Lewis, ‘It was brought about by a basic, human connection that did not rely on common language or common background, even common interests; what it did rely on was an openness and a willingness to collaborate (from both parties) that in this case quickly established a platform on which we could begin to share with one another.’

The concept of shared experience is central to the composition of Belongings. As Lewis explains, ‘In the finale both chorus groups – World War II evacuees and present day refugees – appear on stage at the same time and combine their “anthems” to create a greater musical experience that breaks down the divisions between them. This combination of disparate songs is at first slightly uneasy and crude, yet gradually becomes something much more communal and unified until finally the whole chorus sings as a single unit.’

‘The development of Belongings has been, and I’m sure will continue to be, a thoroughly eye-opening experience for myself and the rest of the creative team and our trip to Sarteano was an important part of this’ says Lewis.

The cast and creative team of Belongings came together for the first time in May

Building links within our community

Belongings will bring together a company of over 65 young people aged 9 to 19 from the local area and furthering this collaboration with TCFT, there are plans for members of the company to visit local refugees centres and take part in creative sessions.

‘These conversations will help to ensure that our work builds links within our community, something that I have always felt is vital and offers a real opportunity for empathy and human contact’ says Lucy.

Reflecting our times through opera

Addressing contemporary issues through opera is very important to Glyndebourne as Sebastian F. Schwarz, our General Director explains: ‘Glyndebourne has an illustrious track record of creating new works. It is a privilege and responsibility for us to identify the stories and events of our time that hold the potential to form and transform society, and to nurture visionaries and support them in their creative processes, so that our time is documented with and filtered through operatic perspectives as richly as former centuries.’

Belongings is on stage at Glyndebourne on Saturday 11 November 2017 at 3.00pm

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