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‘Voices hoarse with wounds’: Music-making and performance in Europe after 2015


Patterns of migration have always shaped performance and artistic cultures in diverse ways. In this short article, I want to draw attention to how musical and artistic cultures in Europe have been enriched and shaped as a result, specifically since the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015. I do not offer comprehensive claims or theories: it will be some time until broader characterisations of twenty-first-century migration and the arts will emerge. My examples reflect both continuations of long ongoing practices and social phenomena specific to recent years. I suggest two general categories: music and performance by persons recently arrived in Europe, and responses to humanitarian crises and migration by artists with no immediate connection. Among many examples of the former:

On artists’ responses to migration and humanitarian crises, recent examples include:

  • Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös’s Alle vittime senza nome (To the nameless victims) (2016–⁠17), an orchestral piece written in tribute to refugees’ loss of life at sea. 

  • The Royal Ballet’s Flight Pattern (2017), choreographed by Crystal Pite.

  • In Sicily, the opera Winter Journey, premiered at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo in October 2019, by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi and Irish author Colm Tóibín. Its première’s location is meaningful: the city’s mayor Leoluca Orlando is well known for defying the Italian government’s order not to allow the Aquarius to dock in 2018. 


My title comes from a line in the opera Kalîla wa Dimna, premièred at the Théâtre Jeu de Paume at the 2016 Aix Festival. Its text is bilingual in Arabic (in the Sham vernacular; see Montangerand 2018) and French, written by Syrian poet Fady Jomar (b. 1979, Damascus) and French author and dramaturg Cathérine Verlaguet (b. 1977, Chinon). With important exceptions, the opera is sung in Arabic, interspersed with spoken narration in French. The narrative adapts ‘The Lion and the Ox’ from the Kalila wa Dimna, a set of stories with a remarkable transmission history, in hundreds of languages over 1500 years. The animals become human, as shown in fig. 1: The King fears the poet Chatraba’s capacity to spread rebellion among his people with his songs; Dimna and the Mother stoke this fear with lies. Eventually, the King assassinates Chatraba.

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Fig. 1. Comparison of the opera characters with animal origins.


During my doctoral research, with a chapter on Kalîla, I met with its composer, Palestinian composer, singer, and udist Moneim Adwan (b. 1970, Rafah) in Aix-en-Provence in 2019, where he now lives. He made it clear to me that his goal in Kalîla, and his other projects, is to open people’s eyes to suffering and injustice, as well as expanding European operatic culture. In the scene I quote, Chatraba sings powerfully of the people’s suffering (listen here): they ‘wait impatiently for their life to have meaning. And their voices, hoarse with wounds, resemble those of the dead’. (Full text can be found here; in my research, as a beginner in Arabic, I translate those parts from the given French, acknowledging that my understanding of the original is therefore filtered). The voice threatened, silenced, broken, but also hopeful, is key to the opera’s allegory of (in)justice; a recurring line, sung at the very beginning, suggests resilience: ‘If you kill a poet, he will be reborn in a thousand songs’. 

Parallels between Jomar’s life and the fate of the poet Chatraba in the opera are central, discussed in this interview. Imprisoned under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, freed in 2014, Jomar left for Turkey, then a refugee camp in Marienheide; he now lives in Cologne. The opera establishes deliberate connotations between the King as Lion – as asad أسد, and this personal history of Jomar’s. A further intentional parallel exists with the 8th-century author Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, whose Arabic rendering of the Kalila wa Dimna was a crucial stage in its transmission. Executed under the new Abbasid Caliphate (see Arjomand 1994; London 2017), al-Muqaffa’s story combines with Jomar’s, and the fictional fates of the ox Shanzabah and the poet Chatraba, in a multi-layered allegory of silencing and corrupt power traversing the centuries. 

All the musicians and singers, from Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, Tunisia, and Morocco, lead active international careers: Adwan left Gaza in 2007 and cannot move back and forth; some have settled in Europe permanently. Local context is also significant: Kalîla’s premiere in Aix brings a number of regional concerns into play, Marseille lying a mere twenty miles to the south. Bernard Foccroulle, then Director of the Festival, explicitly connected it to the Mediterranean situation. The opera’s bilingualism – a relative rarity – raises issues of power, knowledge, culture, identity, and colonial pasts (Phipps 2019). Watching the documentary about Kalîla, Les yeux de la parole (2018), which follows rehearsals and local schoolchildren learning about the opera, offers insights into how this joining of Arabic and French differently shaped the creation and subjective experiences of the opera; it is mightily complex, interactions sometimes in conflict, revealing troubled power relations. 


As this UNHCR article addresses, music can be a site of loss for newly arrived migrants and refugees. There is no one process to characterise the rich span of music-making in communities around the world, of which my contribution here is only a brief overview. Different modes of art-making about/in/through migration raise numerous conceptual questions, and often reflect diverging objectives: themes emerge including the navigation of tradition/modernity, diaspora and memory, trauma, and power. Abdallah Rahal, the lead singer of Musiqana, reminds us in this article by Jill Petzinger: ‘Refugee is not my name, and it’s not my work – it’s my situation’. As a white British scholar with training at privileged institutions, I have lived in France and the USA without scrutiny or discrimination as an ‘ex-pat’, an awareness of the systematic racism involved in political typologies of ‘migrant’ (Erel et al 2016; Kunz 2019) is necessary in writing about diasporic art. It often involves descriptors of rootlessness, liminality, and pain: Rahhal’s words work as a corrective to the – often unconscious, but not insignificant – act of sensationalising pain or fetishizing vulnerability in analysis. Creation and discourse alike reveal inequalities and ethical questions of responsibility, to which scholarship in the arts and beyond can attune. 

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Jane Isabelle Forner

Dr Jane Forner is a musicologist specialising in contemporary opera in Europe and the United States. She obtained her PhD in Music at Columbia University in April 2020, advised by George Lewis. Her doctoral thesis, ‘Distant Pasts Reimagined: Encountering the Political Present in 21 st -Century Opera’, focuses on four recent operas by Cecilie Ore, Moneim Adwan, Anthony Davis, and Péter Eötvös, arguing that ancient, mythological, and medieval sources are used to interrogate current issues at the intersection of feminism, politics, religion, and culture. Her interests include politics in music, (post)colonial studies, feminist theory, and race and immigration in the 21 st century.

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