Stumbling Stones


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Stumbling Stones

Opera Circus was invited to help with the first research and development steps for Stumbling Stones, a work in progress theatre production with live music held at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool on April 10 and 11 2023.

Julia Nelki: Writer and author of Villa Russo: A Jewish Story

I have always been interested in families and their stories and I hope by hearing mine, you may be inspired to tell yours. I wrote the book, based on my father’s research, to finish the work he had started, an act of love to him. Unexpectedly, the process of writing became my journey of exploration too and connected me with my Jewish and German identities as well as my English one. When I started, I wanted to let people know what had happened in the past. I wanted the book to be a way to hold on to memories, both painful and positive, and to look forward to ways to keep connections, with joy, solidarity, and music, as happened around our links with the Villa Russo. I had not fully realised just how relevant the stories would be today or that things could change so fast: How many communities have been, and still are, shattered by war and persecution, how many families are torn apart. This makes it even more important to learn about each other, celebrate our differences, bring people together and hold on to our compassion and humanity
Julia Nelki

The first work in progress of this new project was shown at the Unity Theatre on Tuesday 11th April. The company under the direction of James Bonas spent two days working together and created 70 minutes of stories and music inspired by Villa Russo: a Jewish Story, written by Julia Nelki based in Merseyside.

James Bonas Director
If the arts in general, and theatre in particular, are one of the mirrors in which we see ourselves reflected, then the stories we choose to tell are a vital part of our social, cultural and political discourse. Julia’s family narrative weaves through centuries and continents and forms the core of the work that we’re creating. It’s a story in which the dreams, courage and creativity of a group of people across generations crash up against terrible prejudice, harsh reality and the Andes. But what comes over most clearly is a sense of great resilience, a capacity for love and joy and a recognition of the fundamental value of humanity. It is this that led us to broaden the scope of the work to include music, voices and testimony from people who in the recent past have found their families torn apart or found themselves on the outside looking in. Making work that crosses disciplines and boundaries is always interesting to me, and so to bring text, music, song and people together and see what happens is exciting. And if we find a point at which those things connect and communicate – then we are on the way to somewhere.”
James Bonas
Villa Russo brings together the history and threads of Julia’s family discovering characters and tales she could never have imagined. Julia centres her story on a house which had a life of its own, a house that was eventually lost to the family, retrieved again and brought back to life. It tells a story as relevant to the present as to the past. The work so far has been developed in collaboration with people from Malawi, Rwanda and Gaza. At this early stage their writing, voices and presence have been woven into Julia’s story and are an integral part of the piece.

Loraine Masiya Mponela, is originally from Malawi, based in Coventry, a writer, poet, public speaker, activist, Philomene Uwamaliya is a survivor of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and a Senior Lecturer at the School of Nursing at Liverpool John Moores University and Qais Attallah a Palestinian student from Gaza, currently studying for his A levels with ambitions to go to Manchester University to study genetics as well as developing his acting career.
Joanna Bending, actor, is the voice of Julia and reads from her book Villa Russo. The music was arranged and performed by Klezmerish with songs sung by the opera singer, Ilona Domnich, who is Israeli/British with Russian/Ukrainian Heritage.

Marcel Becker Klezmerish
Whether it’s Klezmer, Sephardic, Yiddish song, Tango or Norteno, all the music we play has no single origin. Even the compositions by Mendelssohn and Kurt Weill we included in the programme are about the fusion of different styles and cultures. We are not looking for purism or looking for historically informed performance practice. Instead, we are aiming to develope the music by searching for inspiration from all around, as the people did who originally created the tunes. So, the questions about identity and belonging, hope and reconciliation are very much in the centre of our musical journey, as well as being central themes in the play. We chose the music as an additional emotional layer to deepen the experience of the story. Stumbling Stones is not only about remembering the past. It is about exploring the relevance of the past to the present and future.

Stumbling stones – ‘stolpersteine’ – are powerful physical memorials to Jews who were killed in the Holocaust or who had to flee: engraved brass plaques are set into the pavement in front of the last home where victims lived. The Stolpersteine were first conceived by artist Gunter Demnig in Cologne in 1992 as part of an initiative commemorating Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. He installed the first Berlin Stolperstein four years later. He has now laid over 70,000 stones, personally overseeing the wording and installation of each one. The task keeps him on the road for 300 days a year.”
The company has spent several months working with the script based on the book Villa Russo by Julia Nelki and including the writing, stories and poetry of Loraine Masiya Mponela, Philomene Uwamaliya and Qais Attallah.

Director James Bonas
Writer Julia Nelki
Producer Tina Ellen Lee
Actor Joanna Bending
Opera singer Ilona Domnich Israeli/British with Russian/Ukrainian Heritage

Film and Photography Robert Golden
Klezermish: Marcel Becker Concettina del Vecchio Thomas Verity Rob Shepley
Work in Progress Directed by James Bonas and Produced by Tina Ellen Lee Klezmerish in partnership with Opera Circus. If you are interested in the development of the production on a professional level please contact Tina Ellen Lee
With special thanks to the generous support of everyone who donated to our crowdfunding campaign which was successful and to The Eleanor Rathbone Charitable Trust, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts for the rehearsal space and to the Unity Theatre for their generosity and welcome in helping us to get this far.


Thank you to everyone who made the first developmental work in progress of Stumbling Stones possible.

The support we received both from the committed audience and those who so generously helped fund the work was deeply felt by all of us in the company and the feedback has been invaluable.

Our first discussions suggest a two stage development, a concert version which will be performed at the Music Room of the Liverpool Philharmonic on January 28 and 29 2024. This will have a smaller cast and be able to tour more easily.

The second process will be a longer research and development period to create a more complete theatre production.

If you are interested we can share more news with you as the work develops. We might even create a newsletter for those who would like to keep in touch with our progress with Stumbling Stones.

Again, thank you for all the support.