Despite consecutive days of rain, on a cloudy and grayish evening of June 29, 2022, Welsh National Opera staged the premiere of Will Todd’s mammoth production “Migrations,” a highly intricate and imbricated work of six narratives conjoined by a singular theme. Judging by the size of the crowd, this opera’s importance was understood by those who attended and the global community. The work brought attention to the experiences of immigrants, their treatment through history, and the sociopolitical transgressions of the current decade. Opera has, for so long, alluded inadvertently to the present world without having direct connections made. In this opera-cum-reflection, we see and hear the troubling world outside on the operatic stage and face the disturbing reality of minorities and those seeking freedom daily.
This work represents revolutionary operatic theater, using six librettists, two composers, four directors, and an appreciably large team of dedicated individuals and creatives. It could very well reframe how opera is created going forward. Instead of utilizing a singular story or plot, a unique “theme” drew each of the six meta-narratives together and helped form a cohesive parable told from multiple angles.
“Migrations” attempted to rework our understanding of what it means to be a migrant. But more importantly, the work challenged the normativity of sedentary lifestyles and the codification of the modern nation vs. nation mentality, the illegality of human movement as espoused by politicians across Europe and America, and the easy homogenization of peoples into inhumane stereotypes lacking in personal agency, identity, and ultimately a voice.
Perhaps one of the most neo-Wagnerian works staged in some time, the Welsh National Opera, five guest choristers, and The Renewal Choir Community Chorus undertook an ambitious task of personifying many of the most topical issues of our day in a form that was both entertaining and soul-searching. The “opera,” which was more like a trans-epochal mirror, covered an incredibly broad range of topics: the injustices of 19th-century slavery, the expropriation of Indigenous land for resources, the trials of 17th-century Pilgrims on board the Mayflower, the impact of humankind on the natural world, and the plight of migrants seeking a new life.
The opera weaves together six stories, all of which center on topical themes: itinerancy, emigration, immigration, cultural uprootedness, social anomy, identity loss, and the motivations behind migration. Inspired by the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower to Plymouth, the work finds contemporary connections everywhere you look, from the plight of migrants crossing the English channel looking for a new life, Ukrainians searching for protection and aid after having their homeland effectively destroyed, to the malignant ‘Rwanda Plan’ put forth by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Narratively, the opera begins in September 1620 with the historical journey of 135 British Pilgrims to the New World on board the Mayflower. However, in two hours, the opera covered a breadth of controversial but highly relevant topics, including the brutality of the 18th-century slave trade and the surprisingly well-documented life of Caribbean-born slave Pero Jones (“Flight, Death or Fog”), the divided treatment of solicited Indian doctors promised the ‘good life’ by the NHS (“This is the Life!”), an English-language lesson for migrants faced with the ramifications of forced migration (“The English Lesson”), and the actions of a Beaver Lake Cree mother and daughter who worked to stop the Canadian government’s oil projects as prophesied in the 19th century (“Treaty Six”).
Comic relief ran through the opera, although by the end, this too turns sour, with a story of a flock of birds traversing great miles with deadly accuracy. But their navigational skill cannot overcome the impact of humans upon the natural biome. In the end, the birds cannot find their home and thus, fall out of the sky and plummet to death. And yet, the opera’s ending reveals that each of these stories, regardless of when and where they occurred, no matter if they involve human or non-human actors, is related to the desire for autonomy, respect, and dignity. Their non-sedentary way of life is seen not as antithetical to nature but far more “natural” than sedentary living. As director Sir David Pountney notes, humankind has been traveling since the dawn of time, and only until recently have we become stationary people living stationary lives. Thus, in Pountney’s words, “migration as a process is integral to human nature… a primary impulse of human existence… and a way of life.”
A Modern Gesamtkunstwerk
With exuberant singing, captivating choreography, effects, and costumes, the neo-realization of the “total work” schema had found its embodiment. The creative team and artistic talent for this production were incredibly large, and any review cannot do justice to the sheer number of people it took to put on this gesamtkunstwerk. Conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren, director Sir David Pountney, composer and jazz pianist Will Todd, and six brilliant librettists were at the forefront of the collaborative giant. It’s uncommon to see more than one librettist for an operatic work (contemporary or otherwise), so to use one per story is a novel step by itself. The job was made more difficult given the structure of the work, as each of the stories had to create inevitably a “complex interlocking fabric,” as Pountney notes. Thus negotiations of what fits where and why were ostensibly paramount to discussions on the opera’s formal structure.
Given that different narratives are occupying the same space, with a panoply of side characters, lighting effects, and dynamic music filling the spaces, there is a risk of overwhelming the audience with excessive information, to the detriment of any one story. Yet, this was of no concern, as the fluidity between stories was seamless and organic and made more accessible through musical continuity and vignette-styled staging choices. The beginning of the opera featured the full WNO and guest choirs, sitting on what seemed to be a stepped or riser-based platform and wearing gray-hued clothing. The opening, as Pountney remarks in his notes regarding the question “whose homeland?” evokes the specter of Verdi’s triumphal “Va Pensiero,” and the allusions are not hard to hear either.
The orchestral vitality of Todd’s musical score is astounding, as it weaves between worlds and captures the sonic identity of the characters without overpowering them. The opera gives you little room to breathe. However, because of the lack of conventional recitative—a shared trait with many modern operas—the audience was thrown into a sub-textually dense arena without respite, with one narrative coming and another leaving, with little understanding of what’s coming. While this was a strength, one might find themselves lost at times as to what they’re watching versus what they should be watching. For example, the 19th-century aristocracy remained onstage, in the bottom right corner for much of the opera, and the choir was always present in the back. At the same time, musically (although tonal in every sense of the word), no hummable melody stuck out because of the sheer amount of musical themes, motifs, and stylizations thrown at you. “Thrown” is used here intentionally because, disregarding the ‘Birds’ and their soaring and cinematic musical life along with “This is the Life!” and its film-score boldness, there’s a struggle to feel any sense of continuity with the music from scene to scene, as there are no translatable motifs and indeed no repeated music.
It was a beautiful but through-composed operatic spectacle which, while fine, defeats the purpose of opera. Bricolage-type forms are fine, but when telling a story, music should embody themes and carry them through, much like Puccini’s “La Bohème,” where Mimì’s Act one aria is heard again at her death scene in Act three. The motifs were missing, and the opera suffered for it. The audience is left to struggle as they piece together what they’re watching onstage with what they read in the pamphlet, as well as what the score attempted to personify. Nevertheless, the usage of an off-kilter harpsichord, hints of serialism, a sitar, Indian raga, Bollywood music, Indigenous folk music, and all kinds of orchestral configurations were beautiful on their own but only on their own. A quilt may be beautiful and deserving of praise, but if it tries to become a tapestry, it will, unsurprisingly, fail.
Set pieces, extravagantly colored sarees, music by Todd and Jasdeep Singh Degun, and dancing by Melody Squires sounded and felt straight out of Bollywood. It’s astounding to see this type of art within the formal boundaries of an opera. Western opera, outside of Orientalist tropes, rarely presents authentic depictions of Indian classical music or dancing within their musical works.
On the singing front, outstanding talent abounded throughout the entire cast. The many exceptional soloists of the evening transfixed the large audience with their voices. This alongside the collective power and visceral impressionability of the Welsh National Opera Chorus, five guest-artist ensemble members, and the Renewal Choir Community Chorus. In “Flight, Death or Fog,” the cast exhibited robust musicality. The dramatically shrewd and vocally effusive bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock and Lindemann Young Artist soprano Brittany Olivia Logan—two highly proficient singers well on their way to stardom—sang the title roles of the enslaved Pero Jones and his wife, Bridget.
In “Treaty Six,” the roles of the Cree mother, Dawn (Marion Newman), and her daughter, Nadine (Isabelle Peters), were sung with technical precision, musical sensitivity, and artistic conviction. The artists amply sang many of the supporting roles as well.
The story of the birds featured the WNO Children’s Chorus, and it must be lauded for their professional sound and succinct execution of movement, choreographed by Melody and Squire and Charles Ames in an organic yet coherent form.
In “The English Lesson,” the migrants Adham (Felix Kemp), Kadra sung (Bernandine Pritchett), and Emelda (Brittany Olivia Logan) were beautifully rendered, with all the soul of one who’s far from home. Each had their musical motif and inflectional idiosyncrasies, adding to the allure of their performances.
Teacher Tom (Tom Randle) was also well sung, although the role was not designed to be focused on. Rather, it was a set piece for the main event of the migrant’s virtuosic solos. In the evening’s showstopper, “This is the Life!” the Indian doctor duo Neera (Natasha Agarwal) and Jai (Jamal Andreas) expertly conducted themselves vocally and choreographically, with the Bollywood dancing by Melody Squires, which was exceptional and refreshing, in context of Western opera.
Several aspects were outstanding in their vocal quality and theatrical embodiment. The Pilgrims’ journey scene during Part 1 was disturbing in its realism. Specifically, when those on the Mayflower started dying of sickness. Cast members walked to the sides of the stage to represent the dead Pilgrims as a voice ominously spoke their names. Nothing more than a swinging light and music accompanied this. In Part 2, during the dinner party at the Pinney family residence where we first become acquainted with Pero, the soulful quartet between Bridget, William (Michael Anthony McGee), Makra (Tom Randle), and Pero is remarkable for its deeply personal sense of longing, hope, anomy, and fear. Pero is called to remember who he is and to reconnect with his true self, the one that slavery took away from him.
The Cree mother/daughter ‘elegie’ to their pillaged land by the Canadian government and oil companies is distressing in its honesty, yet elegant and beautiful in its vocal embodiment.
Other key moments included the entire “This Is Life” vignette and the migrant’s solos during the “English Lesson,” where each intimately delivers a gripping recall of their past lives before their forced migration. During Bridget’s glorious Part 2 aria, she sat modestly on the stage and sang simply like only someone with exceptional technique and a heart of gold can do. It was reminiscent of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” as the music and Logan’s warm singing were rapturous yet not indulgent, self-restrained yet emotively candid.
This tension between the dramatic reflection of real-life issues in such a fantastic format pervades topical operas. A fundamental problem is how attention is effectively brought to these topics without using cliches, focusing too much on musical and visual aesthetics over the subject, or dodging polemics altogether. WNO did a marvelous job balancing dramatic theater and politics. Modern opera must not be the removal of life from art but the closer integration of life into art. Works such as Blanchard and Lemmon’s seminal “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” Richard’s “Blind Injustice,” Boehler’s “Fat Pig,” and the tetra-logic project “The Stonewall Operas” based around the Stonewall riots are just a few in which modern composers are continuously engaging with complex subjects. They’re bringing their stories, teachings, and experiences to those for whom such things are unnoticed. Thus, Welsh National Opera has energized the scene with its newest production, which subverts the one-story-per-opera norm by encapsulating stories from across the globe (literally) with a cast whose diversity is exemplified musically and choreographically, dramaturgically, and visually.
This production, a stereotype-busting panoply of art that returns the human to humanity, invites its viewers to seek the real stories behind the falsely homogenized messaging of certain ideological camps. We should applaud WNO and the many singers, dancers, and creative individuals involved in bringing this brilliant work to life. They dared to poke the beast and enter the lion’s den to better us all. As Pountney aptly writes, “We live today in a world where migration is an increasing phenomenon.” How we respond will define who we are as a global community.