40 young people aged between 15 and 21, who have recently arrived in the UK and are seeking asylum, are creating their own mini-opera for Investec Opera Holland Park’s (OHP) stage. Refuge in Harmony, a project devised by OHP in partnership with the British Red Cross, is a platform for these young people to tell their stories, re-establish identities and gain confidence via the instinctive languages of music and drama. The group is creating its own 20-minute performance piece with the help of composer Laura Bowler, director Ruth Mariner and OHP singers Nicholas Garrett, Joanna Harries, Felix Kemp and Nicola Said.

Workshops are underway and will culminate in a live performance alongside a full orchestra and OHP singers at OHP’s Open Day on Sunday 22 July. The audience will include the local community, OHP patrons, and friends and acquaintances of the young people taking part. The project is intended to make its participants feel at home within the community and within a theatre environment, as well as challenging any preconceptions among audiences and encouraging them to embrace these new citizens.

Refuge in Harmony was instigated following a visit to Berlin in 2016 by OHP’s Director of Opera, James Clutton. A number of arts organisations there were running inspiring projects to integrate refugees within their communities, including Komische Oper Berlin. On his return to the UK, James approached the British Red Cross about working together.

Two ‘Insight’ days took place in summer 2017, introducing 41 young refugees to opera and the roles of singers, orchestral players and behind-the-scenes crew. The young people found that they related easily to opera, and felt unified in the knowledge that everyone in the audience understands opera despite not speaking the language in which it is sung. OHP company members in turn learnt new communication skills from interacting with these inspiring young people. Following these highly successful first forays, this year’s longer and wider-reaching project was born.

James Clutton, Director of Opera, elaborates: “Opera Holland Park is proud to be playing a significant part in the opera industry’s efforts to work with these vulnerable groups. We are well aware of the necessity for this project, the likes of which have become second nature in countries like Germany. We are excited to bring more opportunities to these young people in London and hope to inspire more arts companies to join us on this journey.”

The British Red Cross is the largest independent support provider to refugees and people seeking asylum, providing everything from food and clothing to learning opportunities. In London, the charity’s young refugee projects support unaccompanied young people from 15 to 21. As well as teaching practical life skills such as cooking and budgeting, the Red Cross runs English language classes and provides opportunities for the young refugees to build friendships and talents through music, dance and drama. Many of them are the victims of forced displacement and have suffered severely traumatic experiences, and these means of creative expression hugely increase their self-confidence and sense of belonging.

Ember Hibbert, London Young Refugee Service Manager, British Red Cross, comments on Refuge in Harmony: “Most of the young people were completely new to opera, and some had never even heard of it. But they are fast learners, and despite their struggles with profound isolation and disorientation, they have embraced the experience and are growing from it. Refuge in Harmony gives them a valuable outlet for their creative energies: the stories and themes running through the performance are all based on their personal experiences.”

In April 2018 OHP won the ‘Education & Outreach’ category of the International Opera Awards for the Inspire programme, which since 2010 has been working to bring opera to all via accessible ticket schemes and projects for social inclusion, health and wellbeing, and education. Refuge in Harmony is the latest addition to the programme and as Lucy Curtis, Inspire Coordinator explains, it seeks to welcome these young people to the OHP family: “For this group of young people, cultural spaces can feel out of reach and inaccessible. Refuge in Harmony is giving this group time to create, space to reflect, security to interact, and new communication and creative skills. It has never been more important to bring people from all backgrounds together, and to welcome them to their new community as equals.”

Refuge in Harmony’s final performance will take place at 4pm on Sunday 22 July as part of OHP’s Open Day and is free to attend. The complete project will also be documented in a short film directed by William Geraghty, to be released in due course.

Investec Opera Holland Park’s 2018 season runs until 28 July. Full details at www.operahollandpark.com


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