The Cable

Opera Composer Thrusts Grim World of Human Trafficking Back Into the Spotlight

And wins a Pulitzer Prize in the process.

sex trafficking

It was around midnight on Monday when Du Yun got an excited text from a colleague. “He just said, ‘Holy shit!’ That was his text,” she recalled. Then a follow-up text: “You just won a Pulitzer.”

It was for a piece of work she did to put the grisly world of human trafficking back on the public’s radar. And not through reporting or book-writing, but through opera. “I didn’t want a didactic telling of ‘this is what this problem’ is but rather to offer this shared experience to really address the evilness,” she said in an interview with Foreign Policy at its Abu Dhabi Culture Summit (fittingly, where she learned she won the prize).

The opera “Angel’s Bone” premiered in New York early last year to rave reviews, both for its artistry and the innovative way it tackled such a bleak topic. Wall Street Journal opera critic Heidi Waleson called the performance “an 80-minute descent into extreme cruelty…that leaves the listener shocked and drained.” Washington Post’s Anne Midgette praised it as “a work that gave me nightmares, yet one that I would nonetheless see again.”

The opera comes with a twist: It’s through the point of view not of the victims, but of the traffickers themselves. The opera tells the story of two angels who fall into the hands of a down-and-out married couple. They begin “pruning” the angels’ feathers and exploiting them to gain wealth. “A lot of times politics, global issues, are very black and white,” Du Yun said. “There is a place for that, but it’s also fantastic to have art side by side, from different viewpoints open for interpretations.”

And if opera carries an effete, elitist reputation, Angel’s Bone is anything but. It weaves medieval, punk rock, electronica, and slew of other genres into its disturbing tale.

Despite the grim subject of her work, Du Yun herself comes across as friendly and expressive, weaving a sense of optimism and hope into the backstory of her opera. She said she drew a lot of inspiration from the survivors she worked with over the five years she composed it. She said she hopes her newfound ‘Pulitzer Prize winner’ title can highlight their stories for a wider audience.

Du Yun’s not a trafficking survivor herself, but she worked with numerous survivors, organizing meetings and workshops with them as she drafted her composition. “That really was just the most humbling experience I had,” she said. “They helped me to understand how to really tell the story.”

And it’s a story millions know too well. There are 21 million human trafficking victims worldwide, the International Labor Organization estimates, who are forced into labor, sexual exploitation, or slavery. Over half are women and girls.

For Du Yun’s audiences in United States, it’s closer to home than they might realize. “Often times when you think about these stories, you think it’s happening really far away…like in a Thailand or eastern Europe,” she said. “But the more research you do, the more you realize it happens right in New Jersey, right in Queens,” the New York-based artist said. While the numbers are inherently difficult to track, the anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project estimates the United States alone has hundreds of thousands trapped in sex and labor trafficking.

Du Yun, born and raised in Shanghai before moving to the United States, is returning to China to work on several new theater performances. After that, she says plans are in the works for a new project on Syrian refugees.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Du Yun would pick up her Pulitzer award on her way to China. That has been removed.

Photo credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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