Photo by Geoff Yost, via Spoleto Festival USA.

Less than 24 hours before concluding its season, Spoleto Festival USA on June 10 unveiled a centerpiece of next year’s programming — Ruinous Gods, a newly commissioned opera about the psychological traumas faced by families and children as a result of ongoing immigration crises around the world. 

The festival announced Saturday night that the new opera by Lebanese composer Layale Chaker and American librettist Lisa Schlesinger will make its world premiere at the festival in May 2024. It comes on the heels of Spoleto’s last opera commission, 2022’s Omar by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music this year. 

Loosely based on the Greek myth of Persephone and her daughter Demeter’s abduction to the underworld, Ruinous Gods also draws inspiration from epics and fairy-tale elements to create a contemporary, mythological fantasia rooted in today’s most urgent issues.

The full-length chamber opera follows Hannah and her 12-year-old daughter, H’ala, who suffers from a condition named uppgivenhetssyndrom. Also known as resignation syndrome, this trauma response to the stress and anxiety of leaving her country causes H’ala to fall into a non-responsive slumber.

“This could happen to any of us if we were displaced from our homes,” Schlesinger said. “We could get to a point where we’re so overloaded that we could just fall asleep.” 

Ruinous Gods aims to encourage audiences to take part in passing down a kinder legacy than the one they inherited. 

“How do we ensure that we are leaving the world to children in a little bit better state than we found it so that they don’t feel they prefer to live in their dreams and choose to disinvest by sleeping?” Chaker asked. “Yes, it’s tragic that these children are sleeping, but isn’t it also the nightmare of waking up in a world like this? The scariest part is that they’re safer in their underworld, and that’s why they go there.”

While Chaker has an accomplished background in composing for theater, cinema, dance and other orchestral and chamber music ensembles, Ruinous Gods is her first opera.

“There’s a lot of trial and error, and there’s a lot of studying of other pieces,” said Chaker, who began working with Schlesinger on the piece in 2019. Given the two women’s multidisciplinary backgrounds, Chaker said, “the format is not very conventionally opera.”

Ruinous Gods will feature several layers of speech, overlapping singing with spoken word taken from ancient Babylonian and Assyrian divinations and incantations. For the instrumentation, Chaker insisted on creating an intimate atmosphere that she called “as fragile and close to the public as possible.” 

The ensemble includes six soloists, a chorus and a chamber ensemble of strings, woodwinds, harp, percussion and piano. In addition, a keyboard will be able to play microtones, notes that fall between the standard Western scale on an 88-key piano, in order to more accurately represent Arabic, Ottoman, Hindustani and Persian sounds and musical traditions.

A renewed sense of hospitality

Schlesinger hopes Ruinous Gods will inspire audiences with a renewed sense of hospitality toward immigrants, refugees and strangers as if they were guests in their own home.

In addition, she said, “the idea of inviting different audiences into the opera space — in this case, inviting displaced people into the opera house — seems like a good beginning for a new kind of conversation.”

Since Chaker and Schlesinger began working on Ruinous Gods four years ago, the number of global refugees has significantly increased to 117 million displaced people. And by all indications, that tally will continue to skyrocket between now and May 2024.

“Unfortunately, the refugee crisis is not going anywhere,” Chaker said. “This is the reality we live in. We are only telling the story now because somebody believed in us enough to give us the platform to talk about it at the moment. What we are able to do is turn these numbers and facts on paper into actual feelings of empathy and personal engagement.”

The opera is being co-produced and co-commissioned by Spoleto, Opera Wuppertal and Nederlandse Reisopera.  

Spoleto Festival USA General Director Mena Mark Hanna highlighted the opera’s relevance in a statement that emphasized themes of forced migration should be at the forefront of people’s minds these days.

“Evoking the current crisis at the US Southern border and the calamities happening in the Mediterranean, Europe, the Middle East, Ruinous Gods speaks to the maddening political morass that drags down the world’s most vulnerable,” he said. “Reverberations of this piece shook me to my core, especially as a father.”

Piper Starnes is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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