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Accompanied by their schoolteacher, Helen, a group of evacuees board the train from London to Lewes to escape the Blitz, singing of the exciting adventure they anticipate in the countryside. With them is Maggie, who says goodbye to her husband, Ted, as she leaves for the safety of the countryside with their baby.
Meanwhile, in the present day, a group of refugee children are re-building their recently demolished shelters. Volunteer aid worker, Theo, arrives at the camp hoping to help, and meets two refugee women: Hallamah and Marjana.
In Lewes, time passes and the evacuees' optimism fades, as they begin to pine for home; one group begins to plot to run away. Helen tries to keep their spirits up, and Maggie finally gets news of Ted from London.
A fight breaks out in the refugee camp, and Hallamah tries to reunite the group with a vision of their future hopes. In the end, however, she can't stop some of the children from attempting to make the dangerous final stage of their journey.
Composer’s note by Lewis Murphy
The process behind Belongings began with a simple directive from Glyndebourne – to come up with a suitable story for an opera that would place a large group of young people at the centre of the action. In this case, it was Glyndebourne itself that ultimately provided the starting point for our story – specifically, Glyndebourne's role in the Second World War, during which it became a safe haven for a group of young evacuees from London.
Photo: Evacuees at Glyndebourne, Green Room nursery Glyndebourne Archive
Laura Attridge [who wrote the libretto] and I were very interested in creating a story based loosely on this period in Glyndebourne's history, which we noticed contained strong parallels with the present day. It was at this time, in early 2016, that the refugee crisis appeared to be escalating – mass drownings in the Mediterranean were an almost daily occurrence and the population of the makeshift camp at Calais continued to grow.
Though, of course, the precise experience of these refugees is far more terrible than that of those who were forced from their homes by the advent of the Second World War, there are several similarities to be observed. For example, in both circumstances, children were displaced and catapulted violently into the unknown, where they faced/are facing lingual, cultural, social and environmental barriers between themselves and their new hosts. Nevertheless, as history has shown us, considerate dialogue and gentle human connection are capable of overcoming these barriers, and it was primarily this idea that inspired the creation of Belongings.
Another important idea for me was the cost of war to innocents, specifically children, who play no part in its action; with this in mind, I have included at key moments in the opera references to the Bach chorale Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld der Welt (A lamb goes forth, bearing the sins of the world), which serves as a reminder of the cruel effects that human stubbornness and pride can have on our world's smallest and most fragile residents.
Laura and I are deeply indebted to Glyndebourne, Lucy Bradley and Lee Reynolds for their generous support and assistance throughout the creation of Belongings.
Lewis Murphy Composer
Director's note by Lucy Bradley
‘Somehow people have forgotten a very simple truth; no one wants to be a refugee. Exile is a terrifying, lonely, confusing experience.’ Caroline Moorehead, Human Cargo
In September 1939, 300 young children were evacuated to Glyndebourne. These bomb-startled and traumatised children from London were restored by their time at Glyndebourne, running in the fields and meeting the local animals. The evacuees left behind letters and toys which were found hidden under the floorboards in the old green room, which served as an impromptu dormitory during their stay. Inspired by these letters and their stories, Lewis Murphy and Laura Attridge began to develop Belongings.
It was early 2016 and it felt impossible to make a purely historical piece about war and evacuation without considering what was happening not 100 miles away in Northern France; where thousands of unaccompanied children were gathering, desperate to find their way across the channel to England.
As the refugee crisis unfolded, images of desperate people willing to risk everything to reach Europe and the UK flooded our screens; the image of the lifeless body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi - drowned as his family tried to make their way to Greece from Turkey – had been etched onto our minds just a few months before.
Two years on and the refugee crisis continues; Amnesty International are calling 2017 the deadliest year so far for refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean, with 2000 people having lost their lives since January. Camps in France have been destroyed and refugees dispersed across the country, only to re-emerge and return to try their luck again on the perilous attempt to reach England by any means.
The famous human rights defender, Helen Bamber, asserted that as individuals who have not suffered trauma, conflict or violence we had a ‘duty to the stranger’ who has had such experiences, to bear witness; 'I cannot bring back the dead,’ she said, 'or change history, but I will be your witness and your story will be told.'
Belongings attempts to bear witness, to people young and old, who have been forced to flee their homes, to leave everything they know behind, and to step into the unknown in the hope of finding safety. Lucy Bradley, Director
Designer's note by Ellan Parry
Laura's text and Lewis's music set up some exciting challenges for a designer. They take us to different times and places, which overlap and spill into one another, echoing how trauma and dislocation mess with our sense of time, and how history hovers in the wings while the ordinary details of everyday life carry us through even the most extreme situations. In our staging, Lucy and I wanted the different time periods and locations to feel equally present and immediate, and to find ways for them to overlay, gently blur, or sometimes violently collide.
Our set uses the same basic elements to stage these different worlds – sometimes our characters create these worlds themselves, sometimes the world moves around the characters in ways they can't control – there is a sense of instability, but also of continuity. During our research into both the World War II, and refugee camps in Europe today, we were both struck by the often vivid colours, which we've tried to incorporate in the design. Colour seemed to make the past feel present, the distant feel close, emphasising the immediacy and urgency of these stories. History doesn't happen in black and white or sepia, and bright, vivid life punches out of the darkest places.
Ellan Parry, Designer
The creative team of Belongings travelled to the small town of Sarteano in Italy to work with young people in refugee communities and artists from around the world. Read more here.