A German Opera Spotlights the Refugee Crisis, With Refugees

The director Jessica Glause, center, in a rehearsal for “Moses,” a work about refugees and assimilation at the Bavarian State Opera.

MUNICH — “We tell the story of Moses because it is actually our story,” one teenager, a refugee from Afghanistan by way of Iran, said in the Hazaragi dialect to the German-speaking audience at the Bavarian State Opera here on a recent Sunday evening.

Others chimed in: “The story of Moses is also my story,” they said in French, Kurdish, Greek and Arabic.

They were the cast of “Moses,” a feel-good yet sobering new production by the Bavarian State Opera’s youth program, written for refugees, children of immigrants and born-and-raised Bavarians.

In the opera, a mixture of new music by Benedikt Brachtel and adapted excerpts from Rossini’s “Mosè in Egitto,” the teenagers tell the story of Moses — common ground for followers of the Bible, Torah and Quran — with Brechtian interludes about refugee experiences and current events.

The director Jessica Glause, who created the libretto based on interviews with refugees in the cast, has concocted a blend of humor, horror and youthful energy that hardly feels like a didactic documentary about Europe’s refugee crisis. Behind the scenes, “Moses” has provided a way to learn German and make friends — in short, to make the process of migration a little less painful.

And audiences have responded favorably: The work’s premiere run, last December, sold out, and because of demand, performances were added to the revival at the Munich Opera Festival in July.

Theater about the refugee crisis has proliferated in Germany since migration into the country reached its peak in 2016. But rarely has the hot-button issue — which continues to threaten Chancellor Angela Merkel’s power and fuel the rise of the far-right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD — entered the realm of opera, much less children’s opera.

And “Moses” isn’t even the first work of its kind for the Bavarian State Opera, located in a traditionally conservative city. In late 2015, the company’s youth program, led by Ursula Gessat, decided to stage Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde.” At the time, hundreds of thousands of people were entering or en route to Germany because of the European Union’s open borders and the country’s so-called Willkommenskultur.

Ms. Gessat said that in the first half of 2016, when the production was still in development, she and her team thought of featuring refugees in the cast — no musical experience required — and eventually “Noye’s Fludde” became simply “Noah,” an adaptation that included their stories.

That summer, while Ms. Gessat and her colleagues were on vacation, some of the darkest stories from the refugee crisis began to emerge: harrowing boat rides across the Mediterranean Sea that left many dead, and governments struggling to reckon with a massive influx of people in need of homes and livelihood.

“When we came back,” Ms. Gessat said, “our idea was suddenly very relevant.”

Ms. Glause, who had volunteered on boats in the Mediterranean, also wrote the libretto for “Noah,” after interviewing many of the same young refugees who are in “Moses.” She described the process — hearing stories of loss, danger and fear from teenagers — as acting as both an artist and a counselor.

Among the people she spoke with were Ali Madad Qorbani, a young man from Afghanistan who fled to Iran, then Europe, after his father had disappeared; and Zahra Akhlaqi, also from Afghanistan, whose mother came to Europe first while she and her sister waited in Iran, where, she said, they were forbidden from going to school but would dress up like students at home and play pretend.

Now, their lives are slightly more stable, though just as precarious as any refugee’s. Mr. Qorbani is an intern at the Bavarian State Opera, and Ms. Akhlaqi is a bright student who said she learned German in part by reading canonical literature like Goethe’s “Faust” and Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” (She also speaks fluent English.)

The heart of “Moses” is how they and other refugees in the cast have adjusted to life in Munich. If “Noah” was an opera about a journey, then “Moses” is about what comes after, with questions about what it means to find a home and how to fit in somewhere new.

There are still monologues of how and why some of the cast members came to Europe, but much of the material is about reconciling their faiths and cultures with those of Germany — including one humorous passage about trying German beer for the first time. But they also describe how they don’t always feel welcome, such as a scene in which the plagues in Moses’s story give way to one person describing signs near Munich that say refugees overrun Germany like locusts.

Moments like this are sobering reminders in an otherwise uplifting story. Life offstage unfolds in much the same way, with stretches of happiness punctuated by harsh reality checks.

At a recent rehearsal, for example, the cast members behaved more like friends than colleagues: greeting each other with hugs, and cheerfully working together on a challenging, even avant-garde production. Away from the opera house, Ms. Akhlaqi is close with Mila Stephan, one of the Germans, who said they like to hang out and cook Italian food together.

But there was also the day one of the cast members, a Nigerian refugee named Unity Okojie, went missing. He had performed in the premiere run of “Moses” in January, but could not be found for the revival this summer. Ms. Gessat said he could still be in Munich, or back in Africa; they just don’t know.

His absence has been written into the show. At the moment where he should be making his entrance onstage, Ms. Stephan and Martin Lucke, another German cast member, address the audience, telling them what Unity would be saying if he were there and explaining the instability of life for sub-Saharan refugees.

Toward the end of the opera, Ms. Stephan and Mr. Lucke sing “Unity’s School,” a catchy English-language number about assimilation; it later served as a crowd-pleasing encore that had even the usher, Stefan Schubert, dancing and mouthing the words.

The Bavarian State Opera’s youth program will return next season with another refugee-minded adaptation: an Adam and Eve story, based on Haydn’s “The Creation.” While it is in development, the AfD party — with its nationalistic criticisms of state-funded institutions that engage topics like the refugee crisis — continues to gain ground in German politics.

But, in interviews, Ms. Gessat and Ms. Glause were quick to say that their job is to reflect the world around them, and that it would be irresponsible to ignore the refugee crisis. Indeed, Ms. Glause said that conservative politicians may change their minds if they met the cast of “Moses.”

“I would tell them to come see this show,” she said. “Come hear these stories.”

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