Tina Ellen Lee

Tina Ellen Lee is the Artistic Director of Opera Circus, an arts organisation based in Dorset, UK and Europe which commissions and produces new chamber opera and music theatre and works with young people through informal arts education. Tina was an opera singer, actress, voice over artist as well as producing over 30 documentaries, co-founding Opera Circus in 1991. She was invited to Srebrenica, Bosnia in 2008 to work with young people determined to use the arts to develop their community. The Complete Freedom of Truth international youth arts programme and network began in 2014.  This ongoing process with young people led to a number of awards and fellowships, including the European Citizen’s Prize in 2015.

Read the Opera Circus project profile.


We were touring an opera in Bosnia and a local NGO in the audience invited us to Srebenica, to come and do some work with some of the young people there. These young people had already been working with the NGO Music without Borders and had realised that music and theatre were a place where they could come together and that through the arts they could create – in their own words – “good people, good parents, we believe it is a place were people can come to understand each other”. This was 14 / 15 year olds telling us this. What they wanted to do was set up a children’s music theatre. I was invited because there was no one in the town who had the arts skills to help them at that time.

In places like Srebenica, people feel condescended to, people feel that when projects come in they are imposed. There is a big divide between the massive big organisations and the smaller light weight organisations who come in and try and find out what people need, what would be helpful. Even now after 22 years in Srebenica there is a very well intended organisation who are imposing projects that people did 20 years ago because they haven’t asked.   People are resentful.

The whole thing about reconciliation is that it is an imposition and it often doesn’t work. Let me give you an example, there was a British man who came in, he had worked within the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa and he had designed a particular form of workshop for bringing together different groups of people. He wanted to do the same workshops with the Bosniaks and the Serb population. He described it to me and I said there is no way you are going to get a Bosniak and a Serb in front of a whole room of people to do what you are describing. It might have worked in an African context but there is no way that it would work in Bosnia. He left after a year, very disheartened because of course it didn’t work.

There is an assumption that people are stupid and they don’t know what they need. The whole issue of reconciliation could have been solved after the war by building factories instead of mosques and churches and making sure there was enough therapy to support people with massive trauma, which still isn’t available. It is a very very complicated situation and millions and millions of euros has been thrown at it. A very large percentage of that has been wasted.

A Mayor of the town I met said “Oh we don’t mind you coming here because you don’t talk to me about reconciliation, we are intelligent talented people we just need a hand up, we just need jobs and an improved economic situation”. What people don’t need is the current political situation and the current corruption. And there is now a whole generation of young people who, when they are offered ‘peace and reconciliation’ projects or who are told they can apply for funding for ‘peace and reconciliation’ initiatives, refuse to do it. Because they say they do not need to be told how to make peace. They would like to make a piece of theatre, they would like to have an opportunity to travel. The young people we work with are keen to help the minorities, the Roma, disabled children. They would like to learn some skills to work with disabled children.

I think the whole funding situation, with its focus on peace and reconciliation, is 15 years behind the times and it is one of the reasons why it is still such a mess and getting dangerous. If you look at Srebrenica and the amount of reconciliation projects that have gone on there. Yet you have a more divided community there now that you ever did. These projects have not worked.


If it was up to me I would say that they should not be defined in that way. You try to explain to people who don’t understand the arts that if you provide people with a structure, with a space and you invite people in then things begin to happen naturally. Our projects are purposively inclusive; we work with disabled young people on an equal level to the other youth in the project. Access has made this challenging but all the young people have got engaged in building ramps and making sure the disabled young artists could get places. For us it makes sense to make this inclusion a part of the whole project. We want to make our project in the model of the society in which we would like to live , a society that is inclusive – then the issues of ethnicity, of Serb and Bosniak actually disappear. It has had quite a transformational impact on quite a lot of young people there.

When things are framed as being about ‘reconciliation’ then it becomes an issue. It should be obvious to everyone when people have come together in a room with an interest to explore something together then reconciliation is implicit.

I refuse to do projects where the funders insist that there is a 50/50 ratio between the participating ethnic groups.   This often happens but in a town where there is a majority of one ethnicity you can’t do that. It’s like using a hammer to crack a tiny little egg. It’s too complicated. Who decided that such approaches work? Who has built up the practice? Who has given it this status? On what knowledge and information are these approaches built?


I have built up lots of documentation and I keep on discovering more papers and studies.   In many of these there is a growing awareness. A recent report recommended arts and culture be used more as a way to work with young people from different ethnicities with the aim of enabling reconciliation.

It is a slow process but things are improving a tiny bit. We took part in a meeting in Brussels and people were saying that at least now it is on the table, it might be on the corner of the table but it is on the table. And there are some funders in Europe that are starting to recognise the arts, attitudes are changing but it is slow. People say to me that it took many decades to get gender as part of every single project and it will take the same amount of time for arts practice to get mainstreamed.

I haven’t given up in trying to prove the value and transformational impact of this work but I have felt over the years a fair amount of resistance and resentment from institutions and from authorities. The position of the artist in society hasn’t really changed much over centuries. We are still considered the outsider, we are dangerous and uncompromising. I think it is going to take quite a lot for society to bring us in to the fold if we ever want to be there.

The major problem facing arts projects is that there is never enough funding for them to work over the long term and therefore the things that get achieved you can never build upon. One of the young people who was the last director of one of the youth centres in Srebrenica said to me that in order to be trusted by a post traumatised community like Srebrenica you have to keep coming back. You can’t do a project and then leave and expect to have any credibility within the community. They said to me “If you keep coming we then know that you care and we need to know that people care about us”.   By his account there is only a very small handful of people who keep coming back to Srebrenica. Young people say to me, you’ve given us these skills but we need support to take the next step forward.   I have always tried to keep going back, to make sure there is something to work towards. We are never given long term funding. We pack a huge amount into the project grants we get and eke them out as much as we can and maximise their impact.

Arts are about a process, not the final production – the final act is important, it builds confidence, it elates and celebrates but that wasn’t the work that was just the finale. It is the process that needs to be commissioned – not the product.


I would say that arts are the ultimate form of communication. They enable people to communicate without words, they can communicate with and through their bodies. A high quality artistic facilitator can support people to communicate on a different level and once they have communicated on a different level you can build tolerance, you can build understanding, people can understand different cultures. There is a wealth of opportunities that come from using those tools. It is primarily about communication but a form of communication that goes to the brain and to the heart at the same time. The heart is often left out of the equation. On the one hand it is very simple and on the other it is very complex. One thing about arts work is that it can create a space where people feel safe and they feel trusted. And therefore they start talking about things very openly. We have a couple of therapists who work with us who provide support when it is needed. Some of the stories that they hear.

It is interesting that there are now groups of young people in Srebrenica who are wanting to develop the arts in their town. These are young people I have known since they were 14 and many now are at university – studying the arts co-incidentally – and they have set up their own cultural festival, they have invited a theatre company to come and work with them over several months. They are doing this themselves, it is something they are driving.   There is one young man who is learning how to work with music and disabled children. The arts have made a deep impression on them and it is now part of their lives. It goes back to what that young man said when he was 14 when I first went there, “we are not building artists, we are not building actors, we are building good people, good parents”. He knows that, he could see that – if he could see that why can’t the politicians see the value of it?


I do differentiate between the community arts and the professional arts. They are both important. We come from a very Western-centric idea of what the arts are. It is important that when professional artists come into affected communities that what they do is relevant to the people in those places. But artists are often lazy and they don’t research and ask what people would like. There is no need for money to make those projects happen, many kinds of accomplished international artists will give their time for free so you can bring those kinds of artistic experiences to people for little money. But in terms of helping with trauma, mental health issues and communication community arts processes play an important role. The amount of money you would spend on bringing an opera to a community would probably run community arts work in the same place for 5 years.

At the level of community arts people can practice and learn, they can make mistakes, produce terrible work, not be criticised and they can grow. They must never feel their work does not have value because it is not of professional quality. Within the community level artistic space and processes there are so many conversations around ideas about democracy, inclusion, equality, economics and corruption. Each time we run these projects it is different. Each time we do a residency it is pulled in a different way because of what happened the year before or who is involved, the different artists who come. Young people are drawn to certain art forms and each time we see so much transformation.

But equally as someone who has always been touched by great art, for me it has always been important that the young people we work with understand where it can go, that they understand the greatness of good art, that they understand the emotion of it. I have watched community audiences see beautifully crafted concerts and they sit there, unable to move, it touches them so much that they walk out of that space and they understand something more, even if they can’t describe it.

We are talking about fractions of funding and I don’t think we should be forced to choose between a good long term community arts project and the most wonderful artist coming into a community and giving people a moment of dreaming and of transience, that opens peoples hearts. Why can’t we have both? We are not talking about billions. You need both – you need to allow people to dream and to be inspired, you also need people to have a go and experiment for themselves and to see where their creativity takes them.