‘Anyone – you, me, everybody – could be Dalia’: Garsington’s refugee community opera

Performed by amateurs and professionals, Dalia – the story of a displaced girl who finds acceptance through cricket – draws on real stories of the past and present in a world where not everyone is a ‘good sport’

When Roxanna Panufnik and I began to think about Dalia back in 2019, we knew the topic of the refugee crisis would only become more crucial. We had no idea, of course, that the situation would be so much more terrifying by the time the premiere was upon us.

The spark had come from Karen Gillingham, our director and Garsington Opera’s creative director of learning and participation. She had worked on a project four years ago, Dare to Dream, which linked local children, including refugees, with others in Uganda, Bangladesh and Syria, and she was eager to continue connecting and engaging young people across the globe in intercultural dialogue. She suggested the topic of the refugee crisis and we needed no further encouragement.

The issue of displacement is close to both our hearts. Roxanna’s father, Sir Andrzej Panufnik, was a celebrated Polish composer who escaped the communist regime in 1954, arriving in the UK as a political refugee. My great-grandparents left Lithuania and Latvia for South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fleeing the pogroms against the Jewish community. Both my parents-in-law were born Jewish in Berlin in the 1920s; my mother-in-law, Gisela, came to the UK on the Kindertransport aged 13. Her parents and brother had no way out and were murdered in concentration camps.

Gisela was fostered by a kind Quaker family in the Midlands, but at school and among neighbours she faced hatred and suspicion for her German accent. Then she learned to play netball. Through sport, she began to find a new self-belief and acceptance from her peer group.

Sport, like music, can unite people beyond words and boundaries – and Wormsley, where Garsington Opera is located, also has a wonderful cricket ground. Inspiration!

Dalia is about a girl of about 12 or 13 who has fled the bombardment of Syria with her family. Her father and brother have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean and she is accidentally separated from her mother, Aisha. She is fostered in a small town in England where the local obsession is cricket. Dalia, though haunted by her traumas and encountering hostility in parts of the community, discovers a talent for the game, in which the staying power and determination she has developed help her progress. Then, on the day of a tournament final, she learns that her mother is alive and in Britain …

Our ending is not all sweetness and light. Dalia has touched everyone’s lives, while her sporting success has brought her recognition and acceptance; Aisha, however, is confined to a refugee detention centre.

We delved long and deep into the histories, processes and musical resonances that underpin this opera. Our Syrian dramaturg, Manas Ghanem, has been a crucial presence and encouraged me to include more lightness and brightness in the libretto (not least a cute scene in which Dalia teaches some younger children to sing her song), and the scents of jasmine and brewing coffee that Dalia sings of, reflect beautiful memories of her former home.

Adrianna Forbes-Dorant as Dalia and Merit Ariane as Aisha in Dalia, a community opera at Garsington.
Adrianna Forbes-Dorant (left) as Dalia and Merit Ariane as Aisha in Dalia. Photograph: Craig Fuller

The inspirational writer and speaker Gulwali Passarlay was also an important source of advice. His book The Lightless Sky chronicles his terrifying two-year journey from Afghanistan to Britain that began when he was only 12, and what he told us about his mental processes as a young refugee had a profound impact on my text. Dalia, safe at last in her foster family’s home, reflects that it is only now that she wants to give up. After two years on the road, uprooted, homeless, traumatised, bereaved, hungry, preyed on by smugglers, bullied by officials, being plunged into “normality” and surrounded by people who still sweat the small stuff is perhaps the hardest thing of all. And every night you relive your traumatic experiences in your dreams.

Another adviser was Roxanna’s sister-in-law, Annie Macklow-Smith, who had worked for a children’s charity on boats in the Mediterranean, pulling refugee children out of the sea to safety. Tragically, Annie has recently died of cancer; Dalia is dedicated to her memory.

One of Roxanna’s passions is researching traditional music from all over the world; in this she roots many of her works, approaching every note with respect and love. Dalia is no exception. She has grounded relevant episodes in Arabic modes, our orchestra includes an oud, and Dalia’s aria is based on the melody of an ancient folk song, Hal Asmar Ellon, which dates from the Babylonian era. Dalia’s mother, Aisha, is sung by the remarkable Egyptian-German soprano Merit Ariane, who will include Arabic-style improvisation in her performance.

Meanwhile Dalia, subtitled a “Community Opera”, will be just that. Our cast consists of nearly 200. Alongside five professional singers will be Garsington’s adult community chorus and youth chorus, plus contingents of children from several local schools. One is Millbrook Combined School, where 60 different languages are spoken; many refugee children have been among its pupils. Many of the kids – plus some of the adults – will be getting their first ever taste of the stage.

They are throwing themselves into the project with astounding energy. The adult chorus play several roles, including refugees, then friends, neighbours and sometimes detractors of Harry and Maya Roberts, Dalia’s foster parents in our fictional town of Hillcrest. One group of the children represent Dalia’s new schoolmates and youth-cricket friends. The others are her “inner voices”, echoing her memories, self-doubts, conflicts and longings. An extraordinary young singer, Adrianna Forbes-Dorant (who is 16), plays the title role, but each of the inner voices is part of her mind.

Cricket scene from Dalia, a community opera at Garsington.
Howzat! … Dalia, a community opera at Garsington. Photograph: Craig Fuller

And this is where one of the most exciting parts of the whole project appears. We have been working with two remote choirs, the Al-Farah Choir in Damascus and the Amwaj Choir in Hebron. They have pre-recorded themselves singing key episodes, beautifully filmed with images intercutting the singing participants with surging waves, clouds and stars. In The Crossing Song and Dalia’s Song, they represent the inner voices of Dalia’s Middle Eastern homeland. Our conductor, Dougie Boyd, is coordinating the chorus to sing with the film (on two large LED screens) live on stage.

Dalia is fed by a dizzying kaleidoscope of refugee stories. There are millions. We had no idea, in 2019, that in 2022 the refugee crisis would be vastly multiplied by a Russian invasion of Ukraine; nor that our government’s hard-line stance towards desperate people fleeing for their lives would be crueller than ever. At the end of Dalia, our heroine is accepted by her community and finds a source of joy; it is bittersweet, since she is still separated from her mother, but there is some hope for the future. Today, however, Dalia and Aisha might be targeted for deportation to Rwanda.

The last word goes to Ella, from the Al-Farah Choir. “I am 12 years old,” she said during a remote-access workshop with Karen, “and I can see what is going on around the world. Anyone – you, me, everybody – could be Dalia. It’s the story of us, it’s our story, and the story must be sung.”

• Dalia, a Community Opera, is at Garsington, Wormsley 28-31 July.


Jessica Duchen

The GuardianTramp

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