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The Curse of Not Being Listened To

How an Opera’s recasting of the doomed prophetess Cassandra reveals the struggle of climate change activists.

Cassandra is a Priestess of the God Apollo and daughter of King Priam of Troy. Within Greek myth, Apollo falls in love with Cassandra and gives her the gift of telling the future. When Cassandra rejects Apollo’s advances, as an act of revenge, he curses her so that no one will believe her predictions again. Devastatingly, she predicts and warns the people of Troy about the danger of the wooden horse, but no one listens to her warnings and Troy famously falls.

This devastating tale of a woman struggling to be heard, especially by men in positions of power, closely correlates to figures such as Greta Thunberg consistently warning governments and organisations of the imminent threat of climate change. The constant battle of environmental activism in the face of social inertia is powerfully explored in a new opera at Belgium's National Opera.

The opera reimagines Cassandra as a climate change scientist who predicts the end of the world, but no one is listening. She decides to try stand-up comedy to engage people and prompt change. The opera is composed by Bernard Foccroulle and librettist Matthew Jocelyn and the score is conducted by Kazushi Ono.

The set and overall production of the opera are also climate conscious. The design of the set was aligned with the Theatre Green Book which suggests that at least 50% of the materials used in a production should come from recycled sources and that 65% of them should be upgraded or recycled.

Furthermore, the incorporation of cracking ice into the score means the threat of climate change is consistently thrust upon the viewers, signaling the increasing urgency of the issue.

The opera also reveals how powerful art and comedy can be by highlighting the struggle of climate activists and consistently not being taken seriously. In an interesting article on the politics of attention and youth climate activists, Mark Ortiz says that “many youth activists who take part in climate negotiation events feel tokenized, like part of a “youth-washing” scheme, and not listened to.” Youth washing is essentially using the voices of the youth in order to make companies or governments look good without acting on any of their ideas. The opera encapsulates this uphill battle.

During COP26, Dominika Lasota, a climate justice activist, also commented on this problem stating “Young people are being invited to panels, being invited to give speeches, being applauded and praised and kind of upheld and brought up to the spotlight,” adding “but that applause that we gain means nothing if there isn’t any action behind it.” So how do we move away from Youth washing, Greenwashing and how do we make companies and governments listen? One option is harnessing the emotive power of art and culture.

As the Managing Director of Creative Concern suggests “Art will always be a method for us to make sense of our world, to document the changes we see around us and crucially, to drive the changes that are needed in society.” The emotive nature of opera and comedy encourages viewers to change their perceptions and perhaps take the climate crisis and the warnings of experts more seriously.

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