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Arts & Culture

A Modern Take on an Ancient Immigration Tale

Terp’s New Opera Explores Struggles of Refugees

By Colleen Crowley M.Jour. ’19

Map illustration

Illustration by Brian G. Payne

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.

Elisabeth Mehl GreeneThe 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. The world premiere will be at 7:30 tonight in the Gildenhorn Recital Center at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

“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.”

For tickets, visit

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