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Europe and Culture – “Wake Up!” EU Cultural Partnership Project 2010 – 2012

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 11:29

Tina Ellen LeeBy Tina Ellen Lee, Artistic Director, Opera Circus UK

“I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.” William Morris, 1882

In the early 90s, Opera Circus, a chamber opera and music theatre company, were invited to Romania by the British Council to take part in a Festival of British Theatre. It was our first tour to Eastern Europe, with Romania still resonating from the corrupt clutches of Ceausescu. Our production was a devised piece of physical theatre interspersed with operatic arias and new music by Paul Sand. The great British director David Glass created a brilliant tour de force called “Shameless” from two of Bertolt Brecht’s short stories and we became the hit of the festival. We toured all over Romania and came away from this country’s rich culture having grown up as artists. “Shameless” was to tour with the British Council for another 5 years from Thailand to Peru, Canada, Sardinia, Portugal to Georgia and beyond.

On the return journey in an ancient Tarom plane, our tenor, a young handsome Englishman from an upper middle class family, brooded in the back.

“What’s the matter, Ted?” we said, and the response was, “ I come from a family where my desire to be an operatic singer is ridiculed and where my father has constantly told me to get a proper job, a job for a man. I come to Romania and I find myself in a country where my voice and my talent are welcomed and where what I do is necessary for society. I am needed. I have a role. Now what do I do?” Sadly within a few years he had given up and no doubt his father got his desire.

There are societies that still manage to retain their traditions and cultures despite cultural homogenisation that globalisation and the internet bring. There are also societies that have lost their own narative and true history replaced by a bland form of socially engineered art alongside government funding-inspired fake rituals and celebrations.

Cultural activity as a means of strengthening community cohesion has until recently been undervalued but increasingly it is being recognised that culture, the creative arts and in particular music, can be powerful aids to overcoming social exclusion, building trust and co-operation and, among young people, to supporting educational attainment.

“Culture generally and music and the arts specifically support the creation of environments for tolerance and understanding within divided communities.” See Francois Matarasso “Cultural Policy Practices in South European Cities” (The Arts, Politics and Change – European Cultural Foundation)

In 2004 my company, Opera Circus, were invited to work with one of the most inspired and yet mostly unrecognised artists in the UK, Nigel Osborne; a composer of distinction and an animateur with legendary skills for working with damaged and dysfunctional children and young people through music. He is an expert on how music and the creative arts affects the human brain. His musical knowledge spans many of the world’s cultures. A man of great bravery who ignored the dangers of Sarajevo and Mostar during the Bosnian war and worked tirelessly with abandoned and traumatised children. He continues to travel the world with his small guitar and his pied-piper-like ability to calm, soothe and rehabilitate children’s minds and bodies. At the same time he continues to make representations against the ignorance and greed of the world’s political systems for instance at DAVOS, at major educational establishments and within corporate entities, either with his music or his eloquence.

Through our work with Nigel, we began to develop partnerships in Bosnia with local organisations, mainly those working with children and young people, who believed that culture and the arts were the most powerful tool to cohere the country’s divided communities.

In 2009 we were invited by a local NGO to come to Srebrenica and use our theatrical and musical skills to help support the development of a Children’s Music Theatre.

We were interested in creating partnerships in the town and to try and slowly work through the understandable mistrust of us appearing as yet another “ignorant and overpaid International” by the community.

We had also been told by a group of local young cultural activists that they were fed up with only bad news coming out of Srebrenica, that they wanted to project good news. Through their cultural activities, there was plenty.

The British Council funded a process of partnership development through its Creative Collaboration Partnership Grant which allowed us to work with a number of partners not only from Bosnia, but the Netherlands, Kosovo and Serbia.

“Wake Up” was born with genuine partnerships and established aims and the application for a grant was completed and delivered. The less said about the application process the better and luckily we were successful.

The idea was that each partner would produce an event that centred on a performance or a training programme combined with a partnership meeting. Each process would involve the development of youth theatre and music as well as involving many artists and those that we could reach at the centres of power. We looked to the long term, making our training and activities as sustainable and effective as we could. We believed that they had to be of the highest quality and reach as large an audience as possible. Finally, the whole process would advocate for the importance of culture and the arts in the EU and its surrounding neighbours.

Inherent in the aims of Wake Up are:

–  to promote human rights, youth, cultural leadership and tolerance

–  to support the training and development of youth leadership

–  to encourage career development in the cultural and creative sectors

–  to strengthen sustainable, inclusive and diverse civic communities through culture and the arts


“..the right to participate in the cultural life of the community.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights


The partners are ourselves, Opera Circus UK, the Institute of Music for Human and Social Development as part of the University of Edinburgh UK, Teater Mimart, Serbia and Musicians without Borders International based in the Netherlands. We gathered associate partners during the two years which included the Youth Centre and Youth Council of Srebrenica and Departure Arts as part of Dorset County Council in Bridport.

The events included a magnificent concert in the huge Cathedral in Alkmaar for Remembrance Day in the Netherlands bringing together musicians from all over Europe including the Balkan region, Roma and asylum seekers. The Sevdah inspired opera, “Differences in Demolition” was performed in Srebrenica and then hosted by the OSCE at the Hofburg in Vienna. Ambassador Ian Cliff OBE, (who was then British Ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna and previously Ambassador to Bosnian and Herzegovina), said that “..these performances are themselves a celebration of the work of the OSCE in the Balkans over the past two decades. Much has been achieved but there is still much to be done to integrate this vital region fully into the European family. One way we can help is by promoting its deep, attractive and varied culture”


A third event was in Belgrade, Serbia, where Nela Antonovic, the feisty and talented Director of Teater Mimart, produced a play including young Serbian and Bosniak actors from Srebrenica, called “The Chosen Ones Wake Up”. This production has been seen all over the Balkan region and most recently in Bridport as part of a day of International Youth Theatre. Teater Mimart were the dream partners, marketing the project with brilliance and constantly advocating for its aims through all their own performances and events with stunning imagery throughout the Balkan region and as far afield as Egypt.

One event involved Nigel Osborne’s Summer Music School for Special Needs Children as a training programme for young people on the uses of music and the creative arts in rehabilitation for mental and physical disability. The group created a devised music theatre performance along with over 50 children as part of the Ulysses Theatre Festival on Brijuni, Croatia.


We have just finished the last event and with the encouragement of the towns of Bridport UK and Srebrenica BiH, we are working towards a second EU grant application. We will leave the description of the events in Bridport to three young people who participated.

The project had a profound impact on my life, ideas and thoughts in regard to the future of me individually and my responsibility towards the healing of my society. The demonstrated determination of the young people to fight jointly for better future was far beyond my expectation.

Tanja Dramac (24) Bosnian, MA in Political Sciences, CEU Budapest.


I became aware of the fact that in order for change to be made, we must have an understanding of what it is that the people care about and Opera Circus has definitely fulfilled that for both Thomas Hardye students and from what I saw, the young people of Srebrenica. It’s been a privilege to get to work and learn with a room full of passionate young people, when it would have been so much easier to not care. I endeavour to share the work of Opera Circus (and the EU’s Wake Up initiative) across my school and relate it to many different aspects of the school to highlight the importance of democracy and the importance of understanding one another.

Rory Newbery (16) Thomas Hardye School Dorchester Dorset UK


I hope in the future you will be able to expand on Wake Up as this is a great alternative to the worn-out methods of rehabilitation used in the past. As a U.S. citizen I have always been exposed to only the negative concerning Bosnia and Herzegovina.. Exposing different countries to each other’s culture is the most crucial part to sustain peace and understanding between countries.

James Jiries 25 (US Citizen/Palestinian origin), Student MA Public Policy studies, CEU Budapest


The eloquence of the 40 young people involved in Simply Human was profound. Their knowledge of and interest in democracy and justice was exemplary. Their desire to work together through culture and the arts to provide a platform for their vision of the future gave all of us of another generation the hope that perhaps the world could be more equitable, where the concerns of its people are for fair distribution, tolerance and understanding of others and with a real desire for peace.

It would take a very simple change of direction, even just the addition of a budget line, to make funding available across Europe to create powerful change through properly supported cultural activity. I think the term is cost-effective for the amounts of money that would be required to facilitate these kinds of programmes in the long term. In the film about these young people from Srebrenica, “Candles Against the Night”** a sum of over €170 million Euros is mentioned which has disappeared since the war in Srebrenica through corruption, dysfunction, out of date bureaucratic demands and lack of professional oversight. Just think what all of us working together to give a better future to young people in Europe could have achieved with such a sum.


* http://www.operacircus.co.uk/wp/index.php

** http://www.journeyman.tv/62555/documentaries/candles-against-the-night-hd.html