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A face to the stranger: Refugees and The Greek Passion

Although Bohuslav Martinů’s agonising drama The Greek Passion was written more than 60 years ago, it is as much a tale for today as it was in post-war Europe, writes Emma Crossley from Meeting Point.

It is an opera about migration, about society’s rejection of the destitute and the desperate when they arrive at our gates for help, about the dangers of failing to challenge populist rhetoric, about the manipulation of society by those in authority. It’s also about compassion, humility and, ultimately, tragedy.

As the manager of a small inner city community project based in Leeds called Meeting Point, I work with refugees and asylum seekers every day and I find it quite extraordinary that an opera written all those years ago can be directly relevant to the day to day work that I do now, as well as the lived experience of thousands of individuals across the UK today.

Encore event, part of Opera North's Community Engagement programme © Tom Arber

Intertwined with the Easter story, the passion tale of Christ is almost relived in Lycovrissi, an ordinary Greek village suddenly faced with the needs of a group of starving refugees on its doorstep. If thankfully less tragic or violent, this is a story played out across Europe, across Britain and in communities across Leeds today, as refugee organisations and projects work tirelessly to bring dignity to, and meet the needs of, vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in the face of the mistrust, fear and anger of some in their communities.

Yet a negative response to new faces is not inevitable and Martinů’s The Greek Passion highlights how responses can differ.

When the group of refugees arrive in Lycovrissi in desperate search of shelter and sanctuary, many of the villagers initially show compassion for the strangers. This is soon questioned, as thoughts turn to issues of personal need and sacrifice. I often hear phrases such as ‘there is no more room in Britain’; ‘we are full’, or, ‘we need to look after our own first’. This is an all too familiar rhetoric today.

Paul Nilon as Yannakos, The Greek Passion © Tristram Kenton

Meeting Point is based in an area of severe deprivation and hardship. It is also an extremely diverse community and one where tensions can run high. And yet within it you can and will find pockets of extraordinary compassion and generosity: the man who donates £100 of his welfare benefits each month to help the destitute; the asylum-seeking woman who saves up her coppers and then donates them to us; the local business owner who passes on unwanted or damaged food products to us to distribute to families; and the local faith, community groups, families and schools who collect and pass on donations of clothing, food and household items. Look closely enough and you will find Manolios and Katerina amongst us.

Backed by faith, morality or social justice, communities have also been ‘welcoming the stranger’ for centuries. Are we not all strangers to someone after all? Yet more often than not there appears to be the ‘good stranger’ and the ‘bad stranger’, defined not by logic or reason but by subjective or influenced opinion.

Members of Meeting Point visit Opera North's costume department © Opera North

Perhaps we should be asking who distinguishes the good from the bad, and by what criteria. It is often those who are in most need who are classed as the ‘bad stranger’; as a group here to steal and waste our precious resources without contributing or integrating with others around them. Many of us know that this is in fact a complete falsehood. Just as the character of Yannakos finds in the opera, when he is sent to steal from the refugees by Ladas, putting a face to the stranger can dramatically shift one’s terms of reference.

When Manolios is excommunicated by the villagers for stepping out of line and actively supporting the refugees, there is a sense in the community that normality has resumed, and the natural order of things has returned. The contrast between the villagers celebrating their comfortable Christmas and the outcast refugees could not be starker. They represent the haves and have-nots; the rich and poor; the housed and the homeless; the destitute sleeping in the doorway of the multinational. It is far easier to walk past head bowed, to step back and look the other way; to return to the familiar and ‘secure’ status quo.

As a society we can choose, like Manolios and Katerina in the opera, to look at refugees through a window of social (in)justice and with compassion; or as something to fear, reject and potentially exploit. The original Greek Passion, written in the 1950s, is a story still being told and played out today.

Magdalena Molendowska as Katerina and Nicky Spence as Manolios, The Greek Passion © Tristram Kenton

One could ask what humanity has learned in the past 60 years: a question we should perhaps all be asking ourselves after watching Martinů’s deeply thought-provoking and humanistic opera. The dignity that was granted to refugees across Europe in the post-war period that ultimately led to the ratifying of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention feels, to me, to have been somewhat lost in the intervening years.

Yet there is hope. Across the country, within our communities and through projects such as Meeting Point and Theatre of Sanctuary, strangers from all backgrounds can and do come together in peace, friendship and solidarity. Perhaps next time you are in the theatre, look around you as there may be the face of a stranger who has not been there before, who has a story they carry with them and who will, I’m sure, appreciate a smile.

Emma Crossley, Meeting Point

This is an edited version of an article which appears in full in The Greek Passion programme.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Panait, Paul Nilon as Yannakos, Magdalena Molendowska as Katerina, Nicky Spence as Manolios, Richard Mosley-Evans as Kostandis and Rhodri Prys Jones as Michelis, The Greek Passion © Tristram Kenton

Further information:

Opera North became the first opera company in the country to be awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status in December 2018. The award was made by the City of Sanctuary network in recognition of the Company’s initiatives to increase access to music and opera, to give voice to the stories of refugees and asylum seekers, and to build important social and creative connections for individuals who can feel isolated and excluded, living in an unfamiliar place.

If you would like to find out more about supporting Opera North’s work in this area please contact Deborah Larwood, Head of Development, 0113 223 3711

If you feel moved by The Greek Passion to find out more about refugees and people seeking asylum in this country and around the world, helpful information can be found at:

UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency | Refugee Council | City of Sanctuary UK | Refugee Week | Meeting Point Leeds



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