Opera Taps Into Terror Of A Child’s World Spun By Forced Immigration

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H’ala lies sleeping in the bubble as doctors explain her syndrome to Hannah, her mother (Taylor-Alexis DuPont), with Crow (Karim Sulayman) looking on. (Photos by William Struhs)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Layale Chaker’s Ruinous Gods is an experimental chamber opera about a painful topic: forced migration. With a libretto by Lisa Schlesinger, the work, which received its world premiere May 24 at Spoleto Festival USA, at first proceeds through a series of loosely linked scenes as it follows H’ala, a popular student in an unnamed Western country. H’ala, who is obsessed with making a movie as a school project, becomes comatose when she learns her family is about to be repatriated to the country they had fled. Linking back to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the story then shifts to a dream sequence, facilitating a journey to a purgatory underworld where H’ala meets other children who have met similar fates, with a crow (Crow) as her guide.

Crow, along with other birds, serves to communicate the cruelest events, such as the forced separation of the child from her mother, Hannah, in poetic language that is deeply touching (“Some fly out; some return, some do not return”). The flight of the birds is a recurring metaphor as they move from realm to realm. Childlike references abound: a large rabbit, found in the snow by another child, Sophia, who evokes Alice in Wonderland and quotes from Dr. Seuss’ Are You My Mother? 

The underworld is clearly a nightmare and an assault on the children’s innocence. Frightening creatures abound, and their language is violent. The f-word is deployed frequently. Chants are a recurring feature, among them: “History erases us” and  “Sleep is death’s brother.” The children, guided by the birds, band together and share their horrifying stories.

H’ala (Teryn Kuzma, center) arrives in the underworld with Crow (Karim Sulayman, left) and another bird, Blue Dove (Leroy Davis, right).

The premise of the opera is that H’ala is a victim of “resignation syndrome,” a phenomenon relatively unknown outside of Sweden, where the syndrome was first studied and named. from where it emerged. As described in a 2017 story in The New Yorker, children incapable of processing the trauma of pending deportation became comatose. Librettist Schlesinger read the story and saw an opportunity to use the victim’s hallucinations as a device for time travel and a link to the myth.

The opera proceeds from scene to scene, often with little to link them, and the poetic language sometimes makes things hard to follow. It seems to work best when approached not as a linear work but as a series of meditations, with Chaker’s hypnotic score to anchor everything.

This perspective, examining cruelty through the eyes and language of innocent children, continues until the final scenes, when the text abruptly switches to a modern-day, strident political manifesto. There is the “Jeb Fezos is flying to the moon” segment, a dark satire obviously aimed at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who heads to the moon because “the world is on fire,” a reference to climate change. Then there’s a rally with slogans like “Resist the corporate language!” and “They stole from us to pay for that wall.”  

At the end, H’ala, back in the transparent plastic bubble that suggests her isolation,bubble, ascends from purgatory, her fate uncertain. But the didactic, raw political interlude has robbed the opera of the greater power conjured by the childrens’ stories and the connections across myth and time.

Chaker, who was raised in Lebanon, has developed an eclectic style that switches gracefully between Arabic maqam and Western jazz improvisation. The opera begins with an Aramaic hymn/chant, which will return later. Much of the text alternates between solo recitative and choral chant, underlined and surrounded by an inventive, nicely varied orchestral score. Still, some of the most interesting music lies in the brief arias. H’ala, portrayed by soprano Teryn Kuzma, projects a youthful innocence that turns to fear and courage. Sarah Shafer, as Sofia, has a knockout soprano aria showing off her focused high register. Mezzo-soprano Taylor-Alexis DuPont’s portrayal of Hannah, the mother, was poignant. Karim Sulayman played Crow, his clear, flexible voice apparently amplified.

Composer Layale Chaker (Photo by Anna Rakhvalova_

The sets by Joelle Aoun were minimal and abstract. In the beginning, H’ala is inside the bubble, and smaller bubbles arrive later, proxies for the other children. When we visit the underworld, a large rock-like structure, shaped somewhat like a bird, descends from the files. Sarah Leterrier’s costumes sometimes veered toward the surreal, appropriate for a dream world.

Conductor Kamna Gupta kept things moving with just the right balances. The resident orchestra and chorus were in good form.

Ruinous Gods was co-commissioned by Spoleto and two European companies, Oper Wuppertal and Nederlandse Reisopera, which will present it later. Unfortunately, the work was the only opera at Spoleto this season, a striking change for a festival founded by an opera composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, that routinely featured three staged operas per season until recent years. Frugality has taken a drastic toll at Spoleto. The festival has always featured cutting-edge works, but when Mena Mark Hannah, a musicologist, took over as the festival’s general director, he made clear that he intended to focus intensely on pieces that dealt with current political issues, such as diversity and immigration. Admirable as this might be, it doesn’t seem to have appealed to donors in the current polarized environment, at a time when the festival was attempting to recover financially from the coronavirus pandemic.

Like opera, dance once flourished here, but this season there is only a single dance program: a provocative, nicely done Romeo and Juliet, presented by L.A. Dance Project, with two men as the star-crossed lovers. Jazz programming seems mostly intact, as is the case for theater works. For Dark Noon, a project of Danish director and writer Tue Biering, our nation’s founding is explored by a cast of Black actors in whiteface.

Amid children in the underworld, H’ala (Teryn Kusma, right) is joined by Hannah (Taylor-Alexis DuPont) and Crow (Karim Sulayman).

Back to classical music, the excellent chamber-music series is among the least-changed aspects of the festival, and it seems poised to prosper under composer-cellist Paul Wiancko, the new director and host. Wiancko, part of the ensemble for the last few years, is not a natural comedian, and judging from the two programs I attended, it seems he’s changed the focus. There’s less talking altogether and less joking around, with discussion more about the music and the musicians. I found this refreshing and hope the audience feels the same. Ten of the 11 programs this season include a piece by a living composer. Almost all of these composers, and a healthy chunk of the dead ones, are women. And I believe there are more works by Black composers than ever before. So, a lot of neglected composers are being featured.

Other music programs, like the choral concerts and the excellent Music in Time series, have gone away. But with so little opera, the orchestra has more free time, so there are three orchestral concerts, including a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Haydn’s The Creation (with the Spoleto Festival USA Chorus). An Evening with Yo-Yo Ma, scheduled for May 30, is surely the high-profile musical event of the season.

One other major development: The contract of John Kennedy, who had conducted here since 2006 and served as resident conductor and director of orchestral activities since 2011, was not renewed. He was replaced this season by Timothy Myers.

The festival continues through June 9. Complete schedules and ticket information can be found here: spoletousa.org. Note that some performances just became eligible for a “Pay what you will” ticketing plan.