Stories told through a community project

Aiming to showcase the lives and experiences of new Canadian immigrants, Clem Martini, a Calgary-based playwright, interviewed Calgarians from almost 30 different countries to present their stories in theatre. The men and women interviewed ranged from the ages of late 20s to 50s, some in multi-generational groupings.

 Calgary Opera’s resulting production, “What Brought Us Here — A Community Opera Project” is expected to premier next May.

Among the inspiring and heroic individuals whose stories are told in the project is Deng Lueth. Originally from South Sudan, Lueth has been residing in Calgary for seven years. He landed with the status of a permanent resident and has been a Canadian citizen for about four years.

It was in 1987 in South Sudan, in a village called Baidit, when kids playing field hockey were disturbed by the sounds of artillery. Among those kids was Lueth — and he remembers being clueless about what he was hearing.

“I thought of it as thunder and tried to understand the weather and looked up in the sky to see whether it was going to be raining or not, but there was the sun,” he told the Journal.

“It wasn’t going to rain.”

The government of Sudan, according to what Lueth was told when he was young, was dominated by Muslims who were not in harmony with the Christian community. Resources were taken away from Lueth’s fellow Christians and the war began.

Lueth recalls spending three days in a tree to escape armed soldiers and when he eventually left his hiding spot and went back to his village, his home was already burned down, he said.Lueth is studying to be a medical doctor and hopes to someday go back home and help the people in Sudan.

Photo by: Kian Sumalpong

He and a few survivors left Sudan for Ethiopia, a country they were told was supposedly safer. Lueth said he and his companions had no idea where Ethiopia was, but all they knew was to head east, towards the sun.

The journey in search of safety was very difficult, Lueth recalls. Muslim soldiers in helicopters were flying over dropping bombs on people who were trying to escape.

But when Lueth and other survivors reached Ethiopia, they found that it wasn’t as safe as they thought it was going to be. In a bid to enhance security, Lueth said, he became a rebel soldier at the age of 12.

After three and a half years as a rebel soldier, he went to a refugee camp in Kenya and started his application for immigration to Canada.

Recalling the evening he arrived in Calgary back in 2004, Lueth said with a big smile, “When I went to bed that night, I felt safe. I did not have to go to bed with one eye and one ear (open) as I had done before.”

Unlike many others interviewed by Martini, Lueth didn’t ask to be anonymous for the production. He told the Calgary Journal that telling his story is part of his recovery.

Lueth’s sincerity and not asking to conceal his identity is something Martini finds beneficial, as he hopes for more individuals interviewed to physically take part in the production in some way.

The participation of these individuals will help Martini’s hopes of bringing something different to the table.

“Opera is historic but tends to be Euro-centric, Martini said. “Many companies have celebrated European writers and it’s not a contemporary feel to those who share a different cultural background,” he added.

Martini hopes the project will change the look of opera.

“I think they’ll get a different kind of story than what we’re familiar with in opera. I think we’ll get a different kind of character, different individual, different faces, different voices,” Martini said of his hopes for “What Brought Us Here.”

In a press release, Calgary Opera’s General Director, W.R. (Bob) McPhee, called the project “an avenue for us to share the art form of opera with non-traditional opera audiences to allow them to tell their stories in a new way.”

“I feel that Canada is half of heaven. I have not been to heaven but if there is heaven and a place that is so nice, then here is half of that.” – Deng Lueth

Martini said he found a commonality amongst the people he interviewed. In general, the stories he solicited were ones of troubling circumstances, yet these newcomers were very resilient and optimistic, he said. Despite losing their relatives and their homes, the immigrants he spoke with feel good and blessed about their life turning out in a positive way as they find new friends and a new life, Martini said. He added that he found their willingness to start over inspirational.

Initially the researcher, Martini is now turning the stories into a libretto, as he is currently working on four stories. One story may relate to just one individual while another will be a compilation of different people, he said.

The individuals Martini interviewed had a variety of reasons for their migration to Canada, he noted. Some are now Canadian citizens, some landed immigrants, some migrated with the intention of returning to their home country, while others came to Canada but didn’t find what they were looking for.

Martini stressed the importance of the combination of the character and the character’s desire in the theatre and opera. He said that desire drives the character within to emerge, which is essential for theatrical productions.

“It’s about people wanting something badly enough that they’re prepared to work very hard against tremendous obstacles,” he said, noting that this is also the case with most of the immigrants he interviewed.

ksumalpong@cjournal.ca