Opera About Refugee Children to Premiere at Spoleto Festival


A chamber opera about refugee children and the trauma of mass displacement will premiere next year at Spoleto Festival USA, the organization in Charleston, S.C., announced on Saturday.

That work, “Ruinous Gods,” tells the story of a mother and her 12-year-old daughter, who are forced to flee their home. The opera evokes the crises over refugee families and migrant children that have played out in recent years in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

The violinist and composer Layale Chaker, who was born in France and raised in Lebanon, is writing the music, to a libretto by Lisa Schlesinger, a playwright, activist and educator from New York.

“‘Ruinous Gods’ speaks to the maddening political morass that drags down the world’s most vulnerable,” said Mena Mark Hanna, Spoleto’s general director. “Reverberations of this piece shook me to my core, especially as a father.”

The festival, known for bringing artists together across disciplines and commissioning and staging innovative works, has sought in recent years to more directly address contemporary social problems.

Last year, Spoleto gave the premiere of “Omar,” an opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim man from West Africa who was enslaved and transported to Charleston in 1807. The work went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.

“Ruinous Gods” focuses on a condition known as resignation syndrome, in which children living in a state of limbo fall into comalike states. It is loosely based on the Greek story of Persephone and Demeter.

Schlesinger said she began thinking about the story as a rush of migrants, many from Syria, entered Europe in 2015. She was moved by reports about resignation syndrome affecting refugee children in Sweden in 2017.

“I could feel these children inside my body, like the way that they felt like they needed to fall asleep in order to be in the world,” she said. “That was really the genesis for this piece.”

Chaker said that her desire for the work was to prompt fresh conversations about how governments and societies treat migrant families.

“I hope that this provides us with the means to interrogate our legacy, the state of the world as we are leaving to our children,” she said. “How can we do better and how can we ensure we leave the world kinder and more just to them, for them to be able to carry on?”

POST AUTHOR: Javier C. Hernández

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