Hope Bachmann is currently studying for a PhD in partnership with Opera North at the University of Leeds, which will look at building solidarity with refugees and sanctuary seekers through the arts.
In the latest in our Theatre of Sanctuary series of blog posts, we asked Hope to explain why she believes the arts provide a pathway to understanding and connection.
Please tell us a little bit about you and about your current studies
I was born and raised in Cardiff and then later Herefordshire. I think that’s why I love both the idyllic countryside and the hustle and bustle of city life, but I’ll always identify as Welsh! After completing a foundation degree in Art & Design, I studied for a BA in Creative Writing and an MA in Philosophy. I then volunteered and worked for various charities, before eventually settling as a support worker in a homeless shelter on nights. It was hard but I loved it!
When I saw the callout for this PhD project (Arts engagement as pathways to solidarity with people who have refugee and asylum seeker experiences) funded by WRoCAH, it was as though it had been designed especially for me! I applied, got an interview, and ended up moving to Leeds later that year.
Why did you become interested in the experiences of sanctuary seekers?
My paternal grandfather came to the UK as a refugee during WWII. After seeing him safely here, my great Oma returned to Germany to be with my great Oma only to be incarcerated by the Nazis in both Auschwitz and Theresienstadt (where the Opera North Youth Chorus recently explored the impact of the Holocaust). Through some miracle, Oma Rosa actually survived the war and was reunited with my great Opa in the years that followed. Understandably, however, they were both irrevocably changed by what had happened.
Their experiences shaped and influenced my life in more ways than one growing up. We were taught me how important it is to stand up for your rights and what you believe in. When good people do nothing, evil prevails. This has meant that I have always been passionate about the plight and rights of people who face social injustices, particularly those who have refugee and asylum seeker experiences.
How aware were you of Opera North’s work before you started your PhD?
To be honest, I knew absolutely nothing about Opera North or that they were a Theatre of Sanctuary before applying for this PhD. I researched them like mad for my interview though, and thankfully, it seems to have paid off! To be even more honest, I’d never even been to an opera before, which is shocking really given that my sister-in-law is an operatic student at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. The first opera I saw was Opera North’s production of The Greek Passion in 2019 followed by Fidelio and Turn of the Screw.
What has your work with Opera North entailed so far?
The pandemic has meant that my work ended up being shaped very differently from what I expected, but it’s still been such a rewarding experience, and had enabled me to observe first-hand how Opera North manifests its commitment as a Theatre of Sanctuary.
I’ve been invited to help with events such as the Whistle Stop Opera: The Magic Flute in Leeds for Refugee Week and The People’s Lullabies Project with St Augustine’s Centre in Halifax and with MAFWA Theatre in Leeds. I sit in on the Opera North Theatre of Sanctuary Steering Group, as well as the Community Partnerships meetings, and attend Arts Together meetings where I’m able to network with, and learn about, other arts organisations doing similar or overlapping work. This has led to me producing a series of guidelines for the Arts Together network on working with people who have refugee and asylum seeker experiences.
Nicholas Watts, Emily Loftus and Timothy Nelson performing Whistle Stop Opera The Magic Flute © Tom Arber
How do you think the arts can impact someone who is seeking sanctuary?
I have been an advocate for, and lover of, the arts from a very young age. I think that they can be an incredible tool for social change, awareness spreading and community building, as well as providing escapism, food for thought and joy. It’s all these qualities and the sense of community that organisations can create and build that really impact on people who are seeking sanctuary.
The arts can help facilitate this in a variety of ways, and that’s pretty special. To have that moment of escapism and to feel a part of something is important for all of us, but especially those of us who are seeking sanctuary. The arts can provide that sanctuary, even if only for that moment in time.
Tabita taking part in the Arts Together Women of Leeds project © Lizzie Coombes
How do you think Opera North’s work benefits the sanctuary seekers?
Their Community Partnerships team are epic and are brilliant at actively reaching out and engaging with other communities and bringing those people into the work that Opera North does. It’s not just about free tickets, it’s about saying to those people: “look, you belong here too, and this building, this opera that we do, it’s for you too. You are welcome and wanted here.” That’s immensely important. On a basic level though, Opera North’s performances are also important as they provide opportunity for escapism, distraction, relief and enjoyment.
What are your plans going forward?
In the short term, I’m going to finish my thesis – and at the end of September, I’m going to be teaching a module called Freedom, Power and Resistance to first year undergrads. In the long term, who knows. I have lots of exciting opportunities and possibilities ahead of me. I look forward to choosing a path when the time comes!
If you could change one thing for sanctuary seekers in this country, what would it be?
That their lives would be no different from those of us who aren’t sanctuary seekers.
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