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New Opera Explores Mass Migration And Climate Change

Each year, millions of people around the world become refugees due to extreme weather like storms, flooding, and drought. As climate change worsens, their numbers are expected to rise. Climate change has been implicated even in refugee crises that most people think are entirely political in nature, likethe horrific civil war in Syria.

Afro Yaqui Music Collective performs "Mirror Butterfly: Migrant Liberation Suite" at 8 p.m. Thu., Oct. 11, and 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 12. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

With its own roots in multiple nations and ethnicities, Pittsburgh’s Afro Yaqui Music Collective seems uniquely positioned to address the issue of climate migration with art. The group mixes indigenous music from around the world with jazz, hip-hop and funk. Afro Yaqui is well known on the local scene, but composer and baritone saxophonist says the group wanted to take advantage of its residency with the New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art series to look at the big picture.

“We wanted to step back and look at the forces that are going to be defining our lives for the next 50 to 500 years,” he says.

The result is Mirror Butterfly: Migrant Liberation Suite, a 50-minute opera premiering this week. Afro Yaqui employs its big-band approach to the mythical story of three warrior sisters fighting to save their way of life and the planet in a time of ecological crisis.

Just as Afro Yaqui draws on indigenous music – from Mexico, Africa, China and elsewhere – so did the story tap indigenous wisdom. Barson said the story derives from folklore the collective was told by indigenous people from the Yaqui nation, in Mexico; Tanzania; and the Kurdish part of Syria.

“We asked, what are your stories? How would you like this to be told in a musical tale?” Barson say. “And of course we do a surrealist spin on it.”

Indigenous iconography informed the libretto, by acclaimed playwright Ruth Magraff, about the three heroines – a flower, a tree and a butterfly – who battle a sword character symbolizing capitalism, with its attendant extractive industries and other forms of exploitation.

Six dancers provide the movement, backed up by four choral singers and a 15-piece band including saxophones, percussion, a rhythm section, and a string section that includes instruments from China and Central Asia. The choreography is by nationally known choreographer Peggy Choy, who blends East Asian traditional dance with African dance. The libretto is delivered in song, rap and spoken word.

The singers includes vocalist Gizelxanath Rodriguez, and the band features acclaimed musicians including saxophonist Ben Opie and Jin Yang, who plays the Chinese lute known as the pipa.

Barson won the ASCAP Foundation’s 2018 Johnny Mandel Award for young jazz composers. Support for the show and its related educational programs also comes from the Octave Foundation, New Sun Rising, and Pittonkatonk.

Mirror Butterfly gets three performances Thursday and Friday, at the New Hazlett. (The two Friday shows include a student matinee.) Tickets are $25.

Barson says he hopes the opera has a future on tour. If so, it’s off to a good start: Mirror Butterfly will get its second production the day after Thanksgiving at no less than the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., he says.

The hope is to spread the word about climate change, including the role to be played by indigenous people, who are so often the guardians of nature around the globe.

“To us, those are the people that are going to change the world,” Barson says. “Really this is going to be a global movement of millions and millions of people that are going to say, we don’t want to live in a world where my well-being comes at the expense of future generations."

[Editor's note: This article has been revised to correct the name of one of the participating musicians.]

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: