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Refugee Week 2023: celebrating sanctuary, compassion and creativity

Our popular Refugee Week Session returns to the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 22 June, bringing together sounds from ancient Persia and modern Iran, a Halifax-based band with members from across the globe, spoken word and more.

This year’s celebration of connection and collaboration is presented by award-winning composer and vocalist Christella Litras and Leeds-based musician Fredlin Morency, who recently performed at the Coronation as assistant music director of the Reggae Roots choir.

In 2018, Opera North became the first opera company in the UK to be awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status, in recognition of the steps we take to ensure refugees and those seeking sanctuary feel included, valued and celebrated through increased accessibility to the arts. Each year we participate in Refugee Week, a festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary, co-ordinated by Counterpoints Arts, a leading national organisation in the field of arts, migration and cultural change.

The Men of the Chorus of Opera North performing at PAFRAS © Tom Arber

Headlining the Refugee Week Session, Persian singer Amir Behmanesh will premiere a new Opera North commission: two new pieces written for him by composer, ethnomusicologist and musician Farshad Mohammadi. Celebrating the rich cultural heritage of Iran, the new works set the 11th-century poetry of Omar Khayyam to traditional Persian melodies with a contemporary charge.

Amir Behmanesh performs in the Howard Assembly Room © Justin Slee

Farshad, also a virtuoso santour player, will lead a six-piece ensemble accompanying the voices of Amir – who performed a memorable set at Opera North’s first ever Refugee Week Session – and soprano and Opera North regular Aimee Fisk.

Amir and Farshad explain: “The concert program will encompass a range of compositions that reflect the breadth of Khayyam’s poetry, from introspective and melancholic pieces to joyous and celebratory ones. Each performance will be accompanied by evocative melodic elements, transporting the audience to the landscapes and emotions depicted in Khayyam’s verses”. The new works will be completed just before the concert, in the first instalment of a new artist residency programme that will run in parallel with Opera North’s Resonance residencies for musicians of colour. This annual programme, now in its seventh year, is part of PRS Foundation’s Talent Development Partner Network supported by PPL.

A recipient of one of this year’s residencies, Babak Mirsalari aka supermarket saint joins the line-up with a return to his Resonance collaboration with drummer Kevin Clark and visual artist Nikta Mohammadi. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Babak calls Leave to Remain, the project that he developed over a week at Opera North in March, “an aural exorcism”. Through field recordings, traditional Iranian rhythms and newly-composed music, he reflects on his childhood; his transition from Iran to the music scene in northern England; his years spent in the “maze” of Home Office bureaucracy in the UK; and finally the beautiful Yorkshire landscapes surrounding his new home in Hebden Bridge.

Babak Mirsalari and drummer Kevin Clark in their Resonance residency © Opera North

Also hailing from the Hebden Bridge area, Hind and the Jaffa Cakes are a group of musicians from different countries and backgrounds who got together at St. Augustine’s, a community centre in Halifax that welcomes and supports refugees and people seeking asylum throughout the Calderdale region. They return with vocalist Nelson Gómez, whose charismatic and heartfelt performance won over the audience at the first ever session in 2021.

Interspersed with the music will be performances on the theme of happiness by spoken word poets with experience of migration and sanctuary-seeking. These new works have been created in workshops delivered by a poet from Opera North and an associate artist from Mafwa Theatre in community settings across Leeds. For most of these poets, this will be their first time sharing their work publicly.

A relaxed afternoon of family fun rounds off Refugee Week on Saturday 24 June, as the magical Disney animation Encanto comes back to the big screen in the Howard Assembly Room.

Packed with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s colourful, energetic songs, the film tells the tale of an extraordinary family, the Madrigals, who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia, in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an Encanto. Its themes of safe havens, family and compassion are particularly relevant to Refugee Week, which this year aims to ‘celebrate what compassion looks like in action’.

Ahead of the 2pm screening, children and their families can create their own Madrigal family paper candle or butterfly to take home. The whole event will be relaxed, with audience members of all ages free to sing along, move around and generally have a good time.

To open Opera North’s Refugee Week programme to the widest possible audience, tickets for both events are Pay As You Feel.

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