Friday, June 25, 2010

Lillian Alling: Ellis Island Memory

I visited Ellis Island 30 years ago and I still vividly remember the feeling of the huge central arrival hall. It’s a very powerful place.

Everyone who passed through Ellis Island first had to climb a staircase that emerged in the middle of the hall. Exhausted from a long sea voyage, often in deplorable conditions, and entering a new country, it’s not difficult to imagine their fear and disorientation as they trudged down their ship’s gangplank, entered the imposing brick building, and approached the top of the stairs.

Eyeing them was a team of medical officers who were trained to recognize serious communicable diseases in the few seconds of time that elapsed as each new arrival passed by. Those who showed symptoms were ushered into observation rooms that ringed the great hall, and then on to confinement in a hospital ward on the island, or to another ship, to be sent back home. Those who passed the initial cursory inspection moved on to the next stage: interrogation, identification and, possibly, approval for entry into the United States of America.

I remember the metal staircase and its railing, the clinical white paint, the frosted glass windows, the containment pens, the sad wooden benches, the hollow sounds of human voices against hard surfaces. I remember thinking that this was what a 19th century sanitarium would feel like.

Thirty years later, I imagine Lillian Alling climbing the stairs, surrounded by hundreds of other haggard souls, speaking countless languages she cannot understand. Perhaps she has a fever or bronchitis, acquired during her voyage from Russia. Perhaps she has heard from fellow passengers that you must hide your symptoms, or you might be rejected. By the time Lillian arrived in New York, in the 1927, Ellis Island had become primarily a detention and deportation centre, and had earned its reputation as the “Island of Tears”. But Lillian is fierce, determined, and strong. She makes it onto the mainland and into Brooklyn, to begin her search for Josèf, a man to whom she is bound by family and history.

In the opera Lillian Alling, we’ll get to see how John Estacio and John Murrell, along with set and costume designer Sue LePage and projection designer Tim Matheson, depict Lillian’s experience on Ellis Island. It’s the first big chorus number in the opera, and it’s sure to be evocative and very emotional.

~ Doug Tuck, Dir. of Marketing and Community Programs