June is barely over, and already this is proving to be a very interesting Summer for new operas. This is especially exciting given the existing rhetoric around the idea that opera is an old and dusty artform, incapable of representing the contemporary world, and so it is a special delight to see an increasingly broad range of creatives tackling it, playing with it, and proving the statement spectacularly wrong. WNO has long been a spearhead of this process, consistently proving to be a refreshingly multicultural presence on the Welsh art scene, which has sorely needed such a presence – being at risk, at times, of adopting a somewhat parochial attitude.
Migrations, a project stemming from a commemoration of the trip of the Mayflower and rapidly developing into an exploration of the very concept of migration and journey in all its human manifestations and beyond, is somewhat of a culmination of this trend. It is also one of the most ambitious projects in recent times in UK performative arts, and certainly in opera, bringing together five librettists from different background, under the co-ordination of Sir David Pountney, to bring to the stage several strands of storytelling, each telling the story of a different journey of migration.
Natasha Agarwal Neera, Jamal Andreas Jai and Bollywood ensemble
WNO Children’s Chorus
The range of the stories explored is wide in terms of time and place alike. From the pilgrims on board the Mayflower to the heart-wrenching tales of Black slaves ripped from their homeland to be traded in Bristol and the Caribbean, from modern-day refugees coming to Wales with their baggage of traumatic experience to the fight of the Cree in America against the construction of the oil pipeline, to the tale of the Indian doctors invited to the UK to help rebuild the NHS, and even including the travels of migratory birds and a glimpse onto a future of space travel, Migrations is faced with a colossal task as it tries to weave all these strands together and present them as pieces of one big picture, reminding its audience that ‘there is no land untouched by foreign feet’.
The result is powerful and in many places seamless; this is in many ways a musical achievement, as the composition cleverly works to create recognisable strands of sound, dipping into musical traditions from all over the world, and then blend them all together. The music is certainly the stand-out feature of this production: its ability to incorporate such a broad range of traditions is impressive, and it makes for many genuinely emotional moments. Take the choral sections of the pilgrims, for instance, which include elements drawn from church hymns and sea shanties, or the unexpectedly joyous Bollywood number which opens the segment about the Indian doctors; and perhaps most of all the powerful inclusion of gospel and spiritual music in the segment about the story of the African slave Pero, which also features the stand-out vocal performance of the night (Brittany Olivia Logan, absolutely breathtaking in her delivery of the role of Bridget).
Brittany Olivia Logan
Migrations lives up to its ambition, and manages to deliver almost everything that it had set out to achieve. Its existence is, notably, proof that opera is still a language that is perfectly apt for telling contemporary, relevant stories, and that it possesses, in the right hand, the capability of telling stories that need to be Euro-centric in nature or closely tied to the cultural tradition from which opera arose. It is innovative in its collective presentation of a narrative and co-operative creation process, its blending of genres and styles, and it is able to bring to the stage a number of genuinely emotional moments, through a clever use of voice and a tasteful presentation of narratives that are at time very tough to handle. It does not entirely escape the trap of the occasional preachy moment (especially when environmental themes are involved, there is a feeling that this could have been handle in a slightly less on-the-nose way), but in a work this daring, the occasional slip is easily missed in the overall picture of its achievements. Ultimately, the greatest strength of Migrations is its plurality of voices, its ability to be a truthful reflection of a history and, more importantly, a present of unstoppable cultural contamination, and its courage in dreaming up a positive future where the many voices of different cultures can blend in together without submerging each other.
Until July 2 at Wales Millennium Centre.
There will be further performances in the autumn.
Main image: Mayflower, WNO Chorus
Images: Craig Fuller