Criticism on Fridays: Walk With Amal

Can Opera Help Break Through Europe’s Prejudice Against Refugees?

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo P. Claes for La Monnaie De Munt)

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most essential topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

In July 2021, a nine-year-old Syrian refugee girl called Little Amal began her 8,000 km journey from the Syria-Turkey border across Europe to the UK. What made her walk so visible? Just the simple fact that Amal is a giant (3,5 m tall) puppet child refugee designed by Handspring Puppet Company. “The Walk” is an ambitious artwork created and produced by Good Chance Theatre under the direction of Amir Nizar Zuabi. This week, Little Amal has finally reached the British coast.

The main artistic idea of the project was to raise awareness and compassion for the fate of refugee children, often left without their parents, using the magical power of creativity of numerous artists across Europe. The local artists were involved in the project in every town that Little Amal made her way through, showing their support of the idea and giving life to “The Walk” itself. But with equal force, the idea has been criticized and attacked at every turn by the authorities, the right-wingers, and simply intolerant people. 

“People felt threatened even by a puppet refugee,” The Guardian titled its article.

But the more the expedition moved to the north, the more quiet the manifestations of dislike became. Unfortunately, there are not fewer of them. It’s just that Central Europe’s surfeited and well-fed population has learned to respond more calmly to mild rebukes. “The Walk” was meant not to entertain, but to educate and make the problem more visible. And yes, creators knew it couldn’t be always peaceful — after all, the lives of refugees are not peaceful at all. So the aggression in Larissa (Greece), where people threw stones at the performance, hitting the local children, caused serious conversation across the whole country.

Yolanda Markopoulou, “The Walk’s” producer in Greece, says:

“Then people arrived and started throwing objects at the kids – it was very harsh. Little Amal was in the headlines for days. People tried really hard to surpass all that negativity and sometimes a negative response can bring more attention than something that’s more peaceful. The whole country was talking about it. It was very impactful.”

Meanwhile, the silent hatred in Germany, France, Belgium, and the UK has just allowed the event to go less prominently — the kids were playing with the puppet, why make a fuss? But there, I think, opera could really become a language to reach the upper class and those in power. In a beautiful, high-class way. Did opera work for it and support Amal? 

In the recent massive media coverage of Little Amal’s arrival to the UK, the Royal Opera House announced that the theater will be welcoming the puppet for a sleepover on Oct. 23. There, she will be surrounded by singers, dancers, and musicians who have gathered to hold a night vigil to protect Amal and guard her against bad dreams. But this event is private and doesn’t build any strong connections to the audience or to the people who should hear about (and might affect) the nightmares of a child refugee. So, who would be there? Only those artists who care? Or is it just another check on a list of accomplishments for the theater this year? In any case, and sadly, it will bring no serious social impact.

Two weeks before, the Children’s Chorus of La Monnaie De Munt welcomed Little Amal in Brussels. It was a beautiful moment of compassion and education for kids, which is already a big and important move, and yet there was no dialog with the usual theatre-going audience in the very city where refugees were forced to go on a hunger strike but had to end it after 60 days, giving up the demand for a collective regularization of their status. 

A truly inspiring moment was presented by Joyce DiDonato in between those events when the famous mezzo-soprano and guitarist Miguel Rincón Rodriguez accompanied Amal’s last moments on the French coast. It was another example of high art beyond stone walls.

Joyce DiDonato later wrote on her Instagram:

Tonight, it was an incredible honor to sing for @walkwithamal before she leaves the European Continent in the morning for the United Kingdom in search of her mother. Thousands of refugees have stood in front of this exact body of water before her, fearful for their lives, displaced from their homeland, looking for shelter. Thousands more will follow. We have the beautiful opportunity to open our hearts and welcome them. I’m wishing you and your fellow travelers much light on your journeys, Amal. #BrayDunes – thank you for your beautiful hospitality. #Amal – safe passage

Those moments, I truly believe, were and will continue to be inspiring and moving for artists, who take part in this impactful project. They will also be essential for Little Amal, who is about to end her long journey next week; hopefully, it is a happy ending. And yet, as it was noted by many people on social media, any happy ending is hardly expected and would not be permitted in the U.K. at all if Amal would be a real child.

So this powerful act, and by extension, the conversation, really misses the essential point, preaching to the choir without really engaging with the party it needs to — those in power, those who decide. Unfortunately, those are the people who conveniently looked the other way and avoided “The Walk.” Ironically, these people are also the ones who are frequent visitors and admirers of opera, the very artform that could speak about the problem to them on their terms and with language. 

While artists open their hearts on stage and at small private events, as they have always done, opera houses might remember that in the beginning, they were born as places where the most important political and social decisions were made against a beautiful backdrop. How many of those decisions were mitigated by the beauty of the art? How many souls were saved?

Could we try it now again?  Unfortunately, not this time. Not for Amal. 

The hope for Amal, as well as the future for refugee kids in Europe, still seems to remain in the hearts of kind and compassionate people — where I believe it was born. Meanwhile, in the heads of rightwingers, conservators, and many of those in power, Amal and her 8000 km walk left only an unpleasant itchy feeling, that as I mentioned before, can be and was easily ignored.