A Modern Take on an Ancient Immigration Tale

Terp’s New Opera Explores Struggles of Refugees
By Colleen Crowley M.Jour. ’19 | Illustration by Brian G. Payne

The first draft of this story was written millennia ago: A mother and her child, forced to flee their home, embark on a journey to seek out a better life. The refugee crisis in modern Syria is the backdrop for a newly relevant take, an opera written by a Terp.

The Artist Partner Program and the School of Music’s Maryland Opera Studio commissioned Elisabeth Mehl Greene D.M.A. ’11 (left) to create an original piece for the New Works Initiative for the university’s Year of Immigration, a series of events and conversations surrounding global migration, immigration and refugees.

The result was “Hajar,” based on the Jewish and Islamic accounts of Abraham’s concubine and their son being cast into the desert, and fleshed out by news reports and firsthand accounts of female Syrian refugees. “She’s just a mom, coming to America with her kid,” Greene says. “Given that our protagonist is a female, Muslim immigrant, I wanted to show her as much more well-rounded than what we usually see.”

Greene, an accomplished woman in a historically male-dominated field, was the “clear choice” for this project, says Craig Kier, director of the Maryland Opera Studio.

As the author of “Lady Midrash: Poems Reclaiming the Voices of Biblical Women” and a visiting researcher at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, she has extensive knowledge of women’s issues and history in the Middle East.

She’s also a librettist, but she revels in the work, saying that opera “gives you space to explore the heightened emotional moments.”

Greene hopes those moments will move audiences to be more empathetic toward immigrants and refugees.

“(Hajar) and all other immigrants aren’t just numbers,” she says. “They have families and homes. They’re people.”

The world premiere of “Hajar” will be at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 in the Gildenhorn Recital Center at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. For tickets, visit theclarice.umd.edu.

The Year of Immigration

A yearlong series of events, programs and conversations underway at Maryland aims to celebrate its large and diverse international community while increasing understanding and action.

The Year of Immigration focuses on issues related to immigration, global migration and refugees. Maryland has a student body representing over 135 countries, and partners with the surrounding Prince George’s County community, where nearly one in four residents are foreign-born. 

Highlights so far have included the selection of the First Year Book, “The Refugees,” by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, as well as panel discussions, courses, study abroad programs, translation and interpretation events, and library and art exhibitions. Still to come:

  • ARTS & HUMANITIES DEAN’S LECTURE SERIES: EDWIDGE DANTICAT (FEB. 20): The award-winning novelist joins Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Merle Collins for a conversation about their experiences as Caribbean Americans.
  • REFUGEE PANEL DISCUSSION (MARCH 7): The School of Public Policy and the Office of International Affairs welcome Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International; Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace; and Ambassador Dina Kawar of Jordan.
  • ESTUDIOS UNIVERSITARIOS (MARCH 9): As part of the new “Terps Translate” program, Prince George’s County Public Schools and UMD provide Spanish-speaking families with extensive resources on college preparation and the admission process.

Find more events and volunteer opportunities at yearofimmigration.umd.edu and follow on social media at #YearofImmigration.


Leave a Reply

* indicates a required field