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The story of Ellis Island is operatic in nature. Millions of people streamed through the immigrant processing center in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bridging the old world and the new, homesickness and hope for a fresh start in America.

Guerilla Opera will kick off its 15th anniversary season by staging two performances of “ELLIS,” an original, multimedia opera meant to immerse its audience in the real stories of what these newcomers, from countries like Poland, Italy, and Ireland brought with them by ship to the island — and what they left behind.

“They literally had to leave everything, and they were just landing without knowing,” said “ELLIS” composer Gabriele Vanoni.


The five-person, multicultural cast will perform original compositions by Vanoni and a libretto by Ewa Chrusciel at the Old South Meeting House — but they won’t be on stage alone. Vanoni incorporated recorded interviews with Ellis Island immigrants into the score, and stage director Laine Rettmer compiled archival footage from the Library of Congress into videos to be projected onto the venue’s walls.

To add to the transportive experience, audience members will also be “checked in,” similar to the processing at Ellis Island — “a kind of customs, so to speak,” said Guerilla’s artistic director Aliana de la Guardia, who also holds two roles in the opera.

Aliana de la Guardia, artistic director of Guerilla Opera, is pictured performing in a workshop of "ELLIS" at Gloucester Stage in April.
Aliana de la Guardia, artistic director of Guerilla Opera, is pictured performing in a workshop of "ELLIS" at Gloucester Stage in April.Jeffrey Means

The audience will then be split into three groups to travel through the space during the performance, viewing the opera from different vantage points at the direction of “guides” incorporated into the show. One group will accommodate any audience members with mobility challenges.

The effect, de la Guardia said, is to merge past and present, “to tie that historical lineage into the immigrants of today, and to see how we are a continuation of that history.”

“We’re layering on the idea of the journey,” said de la Guardia, who plays Raysel Luba and Maria’s mother in “ELLIS.” “We’re all migrating around the space together as one group of people that are trying to find their way to the center of the story.”


“ELLIS” is the brainchild of Vanoni, who is also the assistant chair of the composition department at Berklee College of Music. He has already mounted three other performances using similar source material, gleaned from Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration’s Oral History Project. He was drawn to the island’s history by his grandmother, who was born in America but passed through Ellis Island after traveling to Italy, where Vanoni was born.

De la Guardia’s character Raysel Luba — an invented name for a character inspired by a real person — came to Ellis Island pregnant after surviving a Nazi concentration camp. Upon arriving, Luba found her father, who was unable to care for himself, and decided to give her newborn child up for adoption. Vanoni integrated a recording of Luba’s daughter’s voice into his composition, creating a “battle” between the scene and the sound.

“There’s voices of the immigrants spread across all the scenes,” Vanoni said. “Those are really the voices that accompany us.”

The video projections, arranged by Rettmer and animator Nuozhou Wang, are also designed to be in dialogue with the action on stage, de la Guardia said.

“We’re telling the story of real people that faced real responsibility in the choices that they made,” said de la Guardia. “It’s important, I think, to put faces to that.”


Rettmer and Wang altered and collaged the videos to be “metaphors for the experience of the characters,” Rettmer said. During a scene when Luba gives up her daughter, there is a clip from Ellis Island of two birds flying together before one disappears.

“I wanted definitely to mix both this style of fiction as well as documentary,” Rettmer said.

It is estimated that some 40 percent of Americans can trace their family history through Ellis Island. De la Guardia, whose great-grandmother traveled through the island before ending up in Cuba, said the opera may resonate with people who “feel untethered from our ancestry.”

“The issue of migration is one that touches us all in very personal ways and in very different ways,” she said. “It’s important for us to feel like we’re a part of the legacy of immigration in this country.”

The opera, Vanoni said, leaves the fates of the characters open-ended. “The question really lingering is: ‘What defines who I am, what is my identity?’” he said.

For de la Guardia, too, the production is less about resolution and more about honoring the stories of the immigrants who journeyed here.

“It’s the trials they went through, the struggles that they encountered along the way, and how the end result is all the same — coming here and looking for something new, starting a new life,” she said. “Maybe a better one.”


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com