Welsh National Opera’s brand-new opera Migrations is ‘a journey at the heart of the way humans behave in the 21st century’ explains Director David Pountney, with the original dates timed to mark 400 years since the sailing of the Mayflower. An event that ties in, directly, with two of WNO’s touring cities: Plymouth and Southampton, both of which played a pivotal role in the Pilgrims’ journey.
There are two standalone pieces that form the focus of each act. In Act One it is the story of modern-day refugees struggling with the reality of living in another country, dealing with a different language and culture, having left their own behind through necessity. Then in Act Two, looking at the experiences faced by those who chose to pack up their lives to help the NHS here in the UK but only to face the prejudices of the racially troubled 1960s.
The interwoven stories around these follow the pilgrims on The Mayflower; the Cree First Nation people facing the effects of generations of migrants on their historic lands in Canada; Pero, a slave in 18th century Bristol; and the innate migratory habits of birds.
Beginning on the Mayflower, Migrations explores the hopes and dreams, the fears and worries of the European settlers as they head across the water to the New World and freedom from religious persecution.
Their journey is perceived by a flock of Birds overhead on their annual migration, the journey that forms part of their natural life pattern, but which is being negatively affected by human habits.
The action flips to the Cree Reservation in 2019, witnessing the conversation between a mother and her daughter, fresh from a protest against the encroaching mineral exploitation that threatens their land. Later time-travelling back to 1876 and the elders’ discussion of Treaty Six, the treaty with the British Crown solidifying their rights over the land in their stewardship.
Pero is an historical figure who is the focus in Flight, Death or Fog. His life with wealthy Pinney merchant family is used to illuminate the experiences of slaves and their monetary value. But it is the emotional struggles Pero faces – his family back in Nevis he was forced to leave, the realisation he is not free, but treated as a commodity.
In The English Lesson, the focus of Act One, time cuts back to 2019 and a class full of refugees from around the world being taught to say who they are and where they are from – their lives spilling out as memories, as scenes of horror, brutality and fear, before melting back to the classroom.
As mentioned above, Act Two’s standalone piece, This is the Life! features Jai and Neera who came to Britain to work in the NHS on the invitation of the British Government. But instead of the promised ‘good life’ they find themselves in the middle of a country divided and filled with high anti-immigrant opinion.
Each piece is tied together through the music of composer Will Todd, combining the disparate stories and unifying their voices. As a piece of entertainment, it was important to balance the painful with aspects of optimism and the inclusion of elements such as Bollywood dancing, a children’s chorus and a gospel choir helps imply the successes as well as tragedy in the history of migration.