In February 2011, the Observer published an article about a young Romanian woman who was trafficked to the UK aged seventeen and sold into sex slavery. It was a harrowing story: difficult to read, to digest, to talk about, even. So when Emma-Ruth suggested we make it the subject of an opera, I thought: yes, this is why people sing, because it’s hard to articulate in words alone.
Following a period of R&D funded by the Royal Opera House, Nic was commissioned by Nordland Teater, Norway, to write a libretto on the subject of sex trafficking for composer Emma-Ruth Richards. In February 2017, they showcased this work at the ICA as part of Mahogany Opera Group’s Various Stages Festival 2017.
Essentially, the piece is about the survival mechanisms employed by the individual, and the caveats imposed by the socio-political apparatus. The idea that someone survives a situation in which they have no jurisdiction over their own body, only to be granted no ownership of that suffering, is shocking. Traffick is also about the bureaucratization of traumatic experience, something that is especially vulnerable-making due to the compressed period of ‘recovery and reflection’ it involves; for healing to begin, deep wounds must be opened, and yet the period of funded support isn’t of sufficient duration to deal with those wounds. When survivors are compelled to leave the system, therefore, they are inevitably as (if not more) susceptible to re-trafficking. Outside of the safe house, if the only person a survivor knows is her trafficker, how likely is she to establish a secure and independent existence?
The characters in this opera are based chiefly on testimonials discovered through the incredible work of the Helen Bamber Foundation and, specifically, publications written by Rachel Witkin. Lydia Cacho’s Slavery Inc and Mimi Chakarova’s documentary The Price of Sex also provided invaluable and terrifying documents of human cruelty.
Nic Chalmers, for VARIOUS STAGES FESTIVAL, 2017
Image: Nic Chalmers