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Immigrants and prisoners bringing new voices to European opera

The EU-funded TRACTION project has turned to co-creation and technology to make opera more inclusive, engaging a variety of communities from low-income neighbourhoods to prisons. The results are dynamic new operas that represent a more inclusive Europe.

©Iftikhar alam | source: AdobeStock #696727106

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Europe is a rich and diverse cultural space, with opera as one of its signature cultural contributions. “A cornerstone of European cultural heritage, opera has always spoken to everyone regardless of class or status, expressing both authority and revolution,” says Mikel Zorrilla, director of Digital Media at Vicomtech.

Unfortunately, in recent decades, this once transcendent art form has lost sight of its popular roots and radical edge. As a result, Zorrilla says opera is now often seen as a symbol of inequality, which is a problem as culture is part of what binds us together.

To address this problem, the EU-funded TRACTION project set out to make opera more inclusive. “Opera has the capacity to rewrite its story in a way that includes those who feel they have been left out and looking in,” adds Zorrilla. “In doing so, it can renew itself and rediscover the energy, resonance and heart to once again be the centrepiece of European culture.”

A libretto for the digital age

Through new technologies and co-creation, the TRACTION project did more than simply bring the opera to traditionally marginalised populations – it involved them in the creative process.

For example, the project worked with the Irish National Opera to create the world’s first virtual reality-based opera. Co-created with Irish speakers living on Inis Meáin, teenagers in remote areas, and adults in Tallaght and South Dublin, the opera was designed to be experienced using virtual reality headsets.

This unique format allowed the project to bring the opera to parts of Ireland usually excluded from accessing this important art form.

Co-creating an opera with inmates

The project also worked with SAMP, an independent music school in Portugal, where it helped co-create a community opera with and for the young inmates of Leiria Youth Prison, located in Leiria, Portugal. Involving professional artists and inmates, their relatives and prison staff, together they wrote and composed O Tempo (Somos Nós).

The performance served as an opportunity to integrate and test the project’s Traction Co-creation Space tool, which linked a stage inside the prison where inmates performed with the main stage in a local auditorium in real time so that everyone could perform together.

Opera as a platform for social inclusion

With the goal of empowering and transforming communities at risk of exclusion, the project also used opera as a creative platform for telling these communities’ stories and sharing their experiences. Take for example the Raval neighbourhood of Barcelona, Spain. This neighbourhood is not only home to the city’s legendary 175-year-old Liceu Opera House, but also a neighbourhood characterised by social, economic and ethnic diversity.

Working with local residents, the TRACTION project wrote and staged an opera about life in Raval. Called La Gata Perduda, the opera featured amateur choirs from the neighbourhood and involved local residents through various collaborations such as designing the production’s visual branding, sets and costumes. The community opera performed two sold-out shows.

The show must go on

In total, the TRACTION project put on 11 opera performances consisting of five hours of newly composed music and involving more than 1 300 non-professional artists and community members. These operas were enjoyed in person by more than 8 000 people, with more than 766 000 joining in remotely.

But more important than numbers is the impact these shows had on the people involved. “There was a real sense of community while we were doing everything,” said one performer. “I learned not to sing, but to give meaning to what I sang,” added another. The project compiled its tools, technologies and lessons learned and has made these resources freely available via the project website for use by different artistic endeavours.

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: Spain
Project participants:
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 3 751 877
EU Contribution
€ 3 751 877
Project duration

See also

More information about project TRACTION

All success stories