Welcome to a curated selection of content about Pacific Opera Victoria’s 2020 Canadian première of Flight by Jonathan Dove and April De Angelis. Here are articles from our Keynotes Newsletter, programme notes from the Artistic Director and Stage Director, a video trailer, and selections from media reviews.
Taking Flight to Anywhere
Many of us have heard of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian-born refugee who arrived in Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988 and stayed for 18 years.
Paperless, unable to fly anywhere, unable to walk out into the French sunlight, he resided in what writer Paul Berczeller called a lost dimension of absurd bureaucratic entanglement. After seven years, Nasseri was granted a visa, but by then his mind wouldn’t let him leave; his story became ever more fantastical, and his interminable stopover ended only with his hospitalization and a stay in a Paris shelter. Where he is now is unknown.
Nasseri’s bizarre predicament inspired several films and documentaries ‒ notably the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie, The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones. But well before Spielberg made being stranded at an airport an occasion for romantic comedy, there was the 1998 opera Flight by Jonathan Dove and April De Angelis – a work that is both edgier and more lyrical.
An exploration of the yearning for escape and for human connection, Flight is full of laugh-out-loud scenes and scintillating musical moments – not to mention the most rambunctious (and possibly the only) childbirth scene in opera. Playful, risqué, touching, this high-flying drama has become one of the most popular of contemporary operas. This, its 30th production, is its Canadian première.
Another reason for its appeal may be the familiarity of its setting – the purgatory of an airport departure lounge, where disparate characters are trapped unwillingly together, stranded overnight by a storm. It’s a situation reminiscent of a country house murder mystery – complete with a violent attack, concealment of a body, romantic mayhem, and an ensemble of quirky characters, all with their separate motivations and hangups, all longing for some kind of magic to change their lives, some route toward freedom…
We meet a young couple heading off on holiday, studiously determined to put some zest back into their marriage with the help of a book on relationships.
A diplomat and his heavily pregnant wife are caught between hope and dread as they head for a new posting in cold, boring Minsk. She is trying to come to terms with impending motherhood, a move to a strange country, and a sense that the shine has worn off her future.
A middle-aged divorcée, twice-married, has no intention of flying; she is waiting for her fiancé, a 22-year-old barman she met on holiday in Majorca, to come sweep her away – half-believing in miracles, half-knowing she’s deluding herself.
A Steward and Stewardess carry on a steamy affair, slipping away whenever they can to some secluded corner.
An Immigration Officer, on the prowl for illegal aliens, patrols the concourse.
A misanthropic flight Controller presides over all the comings and goings – an imperious goddess, icily detached, her latent humanity held under tight control. Dove made an inspired choice to write the role of the Controller for a coloratura soprano, whose spectacular tones float high above the action, ethereal, steely. She even holds her own in a spine-tingling duet with the storm.
Finally, there is the Refugee, who for several weeks has made the airport his home. He is caught between worlds, without documents, belonging nowhere, eluding the Immigration Officer, mixing with the passengers, asking them for help. But they have places to go and lives to change, and no time for him. Again, Dove’s soundscape is riveting. The Refugee is a countertenor ‒ his enigmatic, other-worldly voice reflecting the plight of a man isolated in a kind of limbo, looking for ephemeral connections with people who will be gone within hours.
As the stormy night wears on, the characters’ anxieties and desires emerge. The Refugee promises them miracles with a pocketful of magic stones – if they will only believe and promise to help him next time he asks. But when the women think he has duped them, they turn on him like harpies.
Things eventually sort themselves out, helped along by the birth of a child and the Refugee’s haunting, heart-stopping story, untold till the end of the opera. As critic Rodney Milnes points out, You almost feel guilty for having laughed so much when the Refugee’s profoundly moving narrative hits you in the gut in the final minutes.
This juxtaposition of farcical and transcendent moments gives Flight much of its impact. (It was commissioned by Glyndebourne Opera in the hope that Dove would create a modern-day Marriage of Figaro, merging tears and laughter while holding up a mirror to society. Figaro famously upended the class system by featuring a (gasp!) servant as star and, if not actually inciting the French Revolution, at least hinting at some of the spirit behind it.)
April De Angelis’ libretto for Flight is peppered with revealing small talk, zingy one-liners and dazzling moments of poetry. The refugee’s song welcoming the newborn is a thing of loveliness and surprise: We wish the world perfect for you, So that it could deserve you.
Dove’s music is full of show-stopping moments. At times the orchestra seems a character in its own right. It perfectly captures the exhilaration of flying, evoking the earth-shaking roar of a jetliner revving up and taking off into the high blue yonder with such gravity-defying exuberance and sparkle that it could be the soundtrack for Santa’s sleigh. It surely re‑acquaints the most jaded among us with a sense of the miracle of flight (there’s even a brief heavenly chorus).
Not unexpectedly, Dove also seized the chance to add to the world’s catalogue of operatic storm music with a rip-roaring musical mélange of lightning, thunder, roiling rain and darkness; the climactic duet for soprano and storm is electrifying.
When the storm finally abates and forgiveness and hope are in the air, the travellers scatter to their corners of the world while the Refugee, Controller, and Immigration Officer stay behind in what the composer himself calls a “happy-ish ending.”
Today, two decades after Flight was created, an entire Wikipedia page is devoted to people who have lived in airports. (Their reasons vary: some are refugees; some have lost their travel documents or run out of money; at least one wanted to be able to smoke and drink without his family bothering him). One of them, a Syrian refugee named Hassan Al Kontar, stranded for 7 months in 2018 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, has been granted asylum in Canada, thanks to the kindness of strangers who sponsored him. He has now become an eloquent advocate for refugees.
A second true story that also inspired Flight speaks to the desperation and courage of many refugees.
As Dove has explained, In the opera, the story that the Refugee tells is not that of Mehran Nasseri, the real life refugee in Charles de Gaulle, it’s the story that has really happened of two brothers… one of the brothers survived, and the other did not.
He is referring to Pardeep Saini, who in 1996 miraculously survived a 10-hour flight from Delhi to Heathrow, hidden in the wheel bay of a Boeing 747. (And yes, there’s also a Wikipedia page devoted to wheel-well stowaway flights, most of them fatal.)
As war and weather, politics and persecution conspire to displace ever more people from their homes, the number of refugees world-wide grows, and these stories of stateless persons become almost commonplace.
What Flight does so eloquently is to bring our worlds together. The Refugee’s dreams and those of the travellers are not dissimilar. They are all trapped somehow; they all seek escape somewhere; they all long for human connection.
In the opera’s final mesmerizing duet, the Controller’s coloratura winds round the Refugee’s voice, as he acknowledges that the airport is his home now … it is where he is bound to remain … a space between worlds where he, perhaps, has found some kind of home.
Capturing the Spirit of Flight
The Director-Designer team of Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald created Pacific Opera’s 2016 Gaudi-inspired production of The Barber of Seville – a gorgeous bit of eye candy that has popped up on seven other North American stages since then, from Quebec to Colorado – and appears at Vancouver Opera this February.
Stunning architecture has inspired Morris and Ken’s concept for Flight as well, specifically Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK, which Morris calls one of the most iconic and alluring spaces ever designed.
With its striking curving wings and soaring, light-filled windows, this was the Sydney Opera House of airport terminals. (In fact while Saarinen was designing the TWA building, he was also a judge in the Opera House design competition.)
Saarinen saw his design for TWA as an abstraction of the idea of flight itself – an embodiment of the longing for open space and freedom that inhabits the dreams of the characters in Flight.
Sadly, in the wake of increased traffic and security measures, TWA’s bankruptcy, and the impact of 9/11 on the airline industry, the TWA building was closed less than a month after 9/11. It sat vacant for 18 years, until it reopened in 2019 as a hotel.
Helping to stage the Canadian première of Flight are costume designer Dana Osborne, who worked with Morris and Ken on their previous Pacific Opera productions – Macbeth and Barber; lighting designer Alan Brodie, who has done a half dozen productions with us, most recently Macbeth and Madama Butterfly; and Pacific Opera’s go-to choreographer, Jacques Lemay.
Artistic Director Timothy Vernon and the Victoria Symphony are facing the music with intrepid spirit and musicianship as they explore this challenging and fascinating opera.
Notes from the Artistic Director
A friendly Catholic family in Vienna invited a young conducting student for dinner. Somehow, the topic of Purgatory came up, whereupon the ten-year-old scion asked:
“Papa, what is Purgatory?” There was an awkward pause; after struggling to explain, the father caught my eye and conveyed his dismay in a glance. “Well,” I found myself volunteering, “have you ever spent time in an airport?”
Of course this was long enough ago that mention of a major airport didn’t evoke stunning architecture, Duty Free, and luxury shopping – rather, a dismal gray space full of people waiting, whether seated or standing in line. It certainly didn’t suggest ‘opera’. All the more reason to admire Jonathan Dove’s brilliance in fulfilling a commission from the Glyndebourne Festival, which we present with great pride to its first Canadian audience. The score has had numerous productions since its première in 1998, and with Seattle Opera offering it next season, shows sign of staying ‘in the repertoire’.
Mehran Karimi Nasseri lived in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport for an incredible eighteen years. His extraordinary story provided some of the inspiration for this opera, specifically the nameless Refugee we meet right at the beginning.
There is, then, a serious undertow, of which we are reminded through the evening, that finds its dramatic climax in the Refugee’s beautiful and heartbreaking aria near the end.
Before that, the plot offers the composer widely varying scenes, humorous, sexy – even sexual – poignant, affecting, all grateful vocally and full of virtuosic orchestral writing. Nothing could be further from the hyper-romantic idiom of our last production (Il trittico, for those unfortunate enough to have missed it).
This has a much cooler, modern aesthetic, full of wit and quicksilver shifts of tone and tempo. It is a superb ensemble piece, offering every cast member a chance to shine, and pushing the orchestra to bring its ensemble playing to a peak. For all its rhythmical twists (and there are plenty!), the score is engagingly tonal, and the clear arc of each act gives the drama a pleasing shape.
But the story remains open-ended, the Refugee’s fate mysterious, and the symbolic force of the airport as metaphor present but elusive. Waiting at the gate has never been as fun. It will certainly never again feel the same.
Our artistic initiative towards Flight the opera led us to think in a heightened way, as you can imagine. We see the show as an allegory; a fable about freedom and entrapment.
Initially we thought to enclose the space to emphasize the inner mind of the lead character Refugee, who is trapped inside an airport, without identity, without friends, without status. But, in our view, that is not the state of mind of Refugee. He dreams of open space, freedom, which is what an airport can represent, at its best. We wanted him to be surrounded by the illusion of freedom and hope, which was nevertheless unattainable: windows, skies, air he can never breathe.
In many ways, all the characters, symbolized and unified by their desire for departure, are enclosed in their own worlds, unable to break from them. We were inspired by the architecture of Eero Saarinen, whose TWA terminal at JFK is one of the most iconic and alluring spaces ever designed. It embodies the bold notion of free movement, through design – in it, there seem to be no boundaries. In the Refugee’s world, boundaries are what define him. But he isn’t the only one. All the characters seem to occupy confined space and share the desire to escape.
Ironically, the Refugee wants to escape by belonging, by being allowed entry into a world he can only view from the terminal where he exists as a perpetual outsider.
The opera has key resonances for our time. In many ways, it reflects the new, dangerously unfolding mindset of exclusion. We hope to inspire another idea through this production and its visual: that borders are an illusion. We wanted to set the production in a mythical other world, not just architecturally but with costumes as well. We want the audience to embrace the broader story-telling of fable by creating a time period which exists only in the imagination: a sort of combination of now and always, as if to say the world will always struggle with the idea of inclusion.
Videos & Reviews
Flight Takes Off: Video Trailer 1
A production of great energy, commitment, and accomplishment on all levels…
Dove’s writing for ensembles is fabulous, with segments of polyphony that send shivers up and down the spine, and the cast—excellent from top to bottom—as well as the orchestra under conductor Timothy Vernon, delivered them beautifully. The composer’s arias, too, are all extremely effective, allowing each ensemble member at least one moment to shine.
Of those arias, and their singers, three stood out…
Allyson McHardy…with her warm and chocolaty mezzo….
Sharleen Joynt…with moments of Queen of the Night-like glory…. when she fully unleashes her coloratura to sing with and against the storm, she borders on otherworldly….
William Towers’…resonant and powerful upper range and exquisite tone make the [Refugee’s] aria a jewel.
One of the best productions Pacific Opera Victoria has ever done…it was something truly special…it delivers, thanks to a complicated but deliciously melodic and pleasing score coupled with this intelligent and compassionate libretto….
It’s ethereal, it’s powerful…it was all fresh and…new – isn’t that really what art is supposed to be about?
Opera traditionalists loath to leave the friendly skies of Verdi, Mozart and Puccini have nothing to fear with Flight. The three-hour romp is wonderfully accessible, boasting lovely, simple melodies and a witty libretto that’s both broadly comic and touching….
Director Morris Panych oversees the proceedings with the correct balance of irreverence and sensitivity.
Flight benefits enormously from Ken MacDonald’s stylish airport set…. And Dana Osborne’s bold 1960s costumes (go-go boots, B-52 hairstyles) are an unqualified hoot….
This is engaging magic realism, unafraid of earthy bawdiness yet also tuned into life’s absurdity, fragility and tragic beauty…
Flight is, in short, a delight.
Pacific Opera Victoria gives Flight a first-class staging with an exceptional cast of singers, stylish design and enjoyable execution of a score and story that is…fun and complex. And…sexy.