Global Elite Migration of Opera Singers and Ballet Dancers (GEM)

Global Elite Migration project picture‘Global elite migrations’ are associated with the mobility of highly skilled professionals in elite occupations such as sport, politics and art; they generate transnational financial capital through their globally expanding transnational networks. The leading expert of globalisation studies Sasskia Sassen calls them the ‘new transnational elite class’.

These migrations inevitably reflect the complex global dynamics, which includes transnational activities, the formation of cosmopolitan identities and nationalistic resurgences – often interwoven in a complex tapestry. The elite migrants occupy strategically important positions and bring together an array of important political actors at play. The evolving mass media, digital technologies and changing migration laws and geopolitical orders have set elite migrations on a new level: elite labour is being now in constant circulation between various countries and networks, connecting western/northern and eastern/southern actors and societies.

Research Team 

Opera Singers and Ballet Dancers

Within this stream of diplomats, athletes and scientists, there is a rapidly increasing – yet under-examined – westward flow of opera singers and ballet dancers from Eastern Europe and Asia. Their talent is said to be a key source of socio-economic revival for EU and US cities. It is therefore strategically important to study their migration experiences and network dynamics.

By looking at the perception of career development and network-building by migrant artists, the Global Elite Migrations (GEM) project bridges two themes that have developed so far in isolation: ‘Immigrant Network’ and ‘Artistic Career’. GEM looks in-depth at how migrating opera singers navigate existing networks, interact with gate-keepers, deal national policy restrictions and find windows of opportunity in their efforts to build global careers.

The project seeks to make a contribution to Migration Studies, where there is a keen interest in – yet insufficient knowledge about – the interaction between the migrant and his/her network as well as between globalisation and nationalism. The project adopts a critical perspective and challenges the view that networks are always empowering the migrant and that globalisation (with its discourse of ‘free-wheel’ mobility puts an end to nationalism.

While exploring in-depth the complex relationship between the migrant and his/her network, the project analysis the following:

  1. career trajectories of elite migrants;
  2. the interplay between globalisation and nationalism in the operatic and ballet production; and
  3. the ‘migrant-artists’ agency’, or the ability to negotiate their choices and preferences in professional, moral and civic terms.


This multi-method qualitative study generally relates to such areas of research as:

High-skill migration


  • Isaakyan, I. (2015). ‘Paradigms of integration in Europe and North America’, in A. Triandafyllidou (Ed.) Handbook of Immigration and Refugee Studies. London/New York: Routledge.
  • Triandafyllidou, A. and R. Gropas (2015). What is Europe? London: Palgrave.

National Identity

  • Isaakyan, I. (2010). ‘Platoon Friendship of the Soviet Academic Diaspora’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 10(2): 271-289.
  • Isaakyan, I. and A. Triandafyllidou. (2014). ‘Marriage migration of Anglophone women to Southern Europe’, International Review Of Sociology, DOI: 10.1080/03906701.2014.954333.
  • Triandafyllidou, A. (2001). Immigrants and National Identity in Europe, London: Routledge.
  • Triandafyllidou, A. (2008). ‘Negotiating Diasporic Identities in Post Communist Europe. Evidence from a Qualitative Study’ in K. Romaniszyn (ed.) Culture and Migration: the Cultural Implications of International Migrations in the Light of Fieldwork Evidence. Berlin: Nomos, pp. 105-128.
  • Triandayfllidou, A. (2014). ‘National Identity and Diversity. Towards Plural Nationalism’ in Martina Löw (ed.) Vielfalt und Zusammenhalt. Verhandlungen des 36. Kongress der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie in Bochum und Dortmun, Frankfurt am Main: Campus, in press (reprint of my chapter in J. Dobbernack and T. Modood (eds) (2013) by kind permission of London, Palgrave).
  • Triandafyllidou, A. (2002). Negotiating Nationhood in a Changing Europe. Washington D.C.: Edwin Mellen Press.

Cultural production

  • Isaakyan, I. (2010). ‘Platoon Friendship of the Soviet Academic Diaspora’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 10(2): 271-289.
  • Meinhof, U. and A. Triandafyllidou .Transcultural Europe. Cultural Policy in a Changing Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Aims and Objectives

Aiming to explore in-depth the relationship between the global career in high arts and immigrant network dynamics, GEM has the following five objectives:

  1. to generate new empirical data about lives/careers of globally mobile opera singers and ballet dancers;
  2. to generate new empirical data about their networks;
  3. to contribute to theories and studies of high-skill migration, immigrant networks and cultural production (by developing a new critical analysis of networking and career development of elite migrant-artists);
  4. to facilitate a link between academic research and the global high-arts industry; and
  5. to produce recommendations for EU countries on how to improve existing policies on migrant-artists in relation to their entry, integration and naturalization – the policies that would enable them to become more independent actors in their networks (more cultural independent producers of their own artistic innovation).

GEM Mapping

GEM is a comparative, ethnographic, multi-method study of three intersecting elite migration streams from non-EU Eastern Europe, China and Cuba to EU Member States, United States, Canada and Australia. There are persistent elite migration outflows from these sending regions, and their artists are employed in most western opera and ballet companies. The graph below shows the directions of these GEM flows, which depends both on the geographical proximity and historical and socio-political connections.

Ongoing activities

In 2015-2018, the project was looking at careers and networks of opera singers who have migrated from the post-communist bloc to Europe. 60 longitudinal narrative-biographic interviews with aspiring opera singers living in Italy and Germany have been conducted. In 2019-2020, the project will engage with small-scale qualitative pilot studies of Chinese artists and artistic managers in Europe, and Cuban ballet dancers in the USA – in order to facilitate a larger grant application. Two articles, a policy paper and a book are expected to be published in 2019-2020.