A Refugee Sings of His Plight

Stranded and Abandoned Amid Weary, Bewildered Travelers

A refugee from a mostly Moslem country is not given asylum when he arrives at an airport. He also cannot leave. His time in limbo seems endless. Travelers coming and going offer him sympathy. But he remains fixed while they move on. Could that be happening today?

It happened in 1988. A true story. Iranian Mehran Karimi Nasseri, refused entry in several countries, lived for 18 years in a departure lounge at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. There have been multiple spin-offs from his story. One is Stephen Spielberg’s 2004 movie The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mehran_Karimi_Nasseri)

Another spin-off arrives at Opera Omaha this month, the 1998 opera “Flight” by Jonathan Dove and April De Angelis, chosen for this season two years ago. Before any Trump travel ban. “The plight of refugees has been present for a long time,” says Opera General Director Roger Weitz, reminding us that conflict in Syria was already raging. “But we couldn’t have imagined back then where we are today.”

Dove and De Angelis wrote this sometimes serious, sometimes comic work at a time when Nasseri was still living at the airport. At the center is a character only identified as the Refugee. Equally generic, no specific time and place of the story are named. However, the people who revolve around the Refugee are not archetypes. As their stories take off, they remain complex and human, stranded in an airport while a storm rages outside. As Weitz observes, these are people going through internal journeys, discovering each other and themselves.

Ten characters closely intermingle and connect. They are the airport Controller, the Immigration Officer, a lonely older woman, a pregnant one and her husband, plus another couple, as well as the Stewardess and the Steward. And the Refugee. Some people are not clearly named, but rather identified by what they do

“They are dislocated,” says director James Darrah. “Their own time and places are suspended; all are forced to remain. Yet, in this quite psychological story, their lives are like anyone else’s,” with heavy and sad moments, frustrations, extremes of happiness and joy. And, being stranded at length between flights is hardly a rare experience. “This opera is its own world, dream-like and a little weird,” he observes, with nothing entirely realistic. For example, trying to represent an airport on stage. Then there are the sound effects. Not recorded. Live, as played by the 60-member orchestra.

Yet, Darrah wants us to feel that these people are real, even though the libretto is “poetic, rather sparse and obtuse. There’s a lot of humanity in it. You want to believe their motivations. Their hopes and dreams seem true. There is the sense, actually, of a dreamscape, where elements make some kind of sense, but not entirely.” However, he suggests not to take everything literally; “it’s not naturalism. It is a kind of human expressionism.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_De_Angelis)

Airports themselves are otherworldly in a way, micro-cosmic universes with internal orbits and constant arrivals and departures spinning off in all directions. Not a place to land and stay. Except for the Refugee.

As for the music, composer Dove says he’s always been inspired by that of Benjamin Britten and how he used it to tell stories, as well as the comic scores of Rossini, Mozart and Verdi. In this case “my looking for new and satisfying sounds was enormously influenced by Britten, Stravinsky and the American minimalists.” There are also colorful touches suggesting Verdi and Rossini in lighter moments.

Conductor Christopher Rountree hears things which also remind him of Leonard Bernstein, while countertenor Nicholas Tamagna, who plays the Refugee, notices moments which feel like Renaissance polyphony, and “a kind of baroque simplicity, with a hint of Broadway in the dance rhythms.”

Such a voice as his is still quite rare in contemporary opera. He believes here it is used to suggest “a sort of psychological disconnect with his own reality. And there are some elements which could seem supernatural plus a child-like vocal range.”

“The point is that the voice sounds distinctively ‘other,’ ” Dove explains. Which makes sense; the Refugee is the only alien. “This sets him apart, and, at the same time, puts him right in the middle of the vocal textures. This corresponds to his role: he is the center of the action, yet remains separate.”

Speaking of vocal textures, Weitz mentions that there is every voice type from bass on up, baritone, tenor, contralto, mezzo, countertenor, soprano. “The whole spectrum. An amazing sound world.” They are a true ensemble.

That is an essential element. These people interact constantly, musically, simultaneously. It’s very special in that way, conductor Rountree thinks, hearing so many voices overlapping. There are rarely arias where other characters stand aside and react while listening. “However there will be clear ideas about who’s singing what words; the cast’s voices are so distinctive. They define the characters.”

This is a large scale orchestral work and Rountree is thoroughly impressed with Dove’s orchestrations. They remind him of John Adams’s “A Flowering Tree” which he conducted here two seasons ago when James Darrah directed. “This is very much like Adams’s waves of music with many styles to express the characters. They drift into their own sounds. The orchestrations especially fill that out, often humorously, a kind of unassuming comedy. That feels contemporary.” He adds, “And the writing for the countertenor voice is brilliant.”

The way Dove wrote that part delights Tamagna. Moreover, he is excited to be in a contemporary work, given that he is best known for roles in Handel operas and earlier music, the more standard repertory for a voice type such as his. However, he did interpret the title role in Sung Jin Hong’s Hannibal with the One World Symphony. The text is based on the NBC’s TV series about the famed fictional cannibal. Hong also created other TV-derived operas inspired by Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Plus Tamagna had the title role several times in Philip Glass’s “Akhenaten.”

“Hannibal has a kind of dark intensity,” he points out, “while Akhenaten is more ethereal as if above the clouds. They are quite different vocally, although there’s a kind of madness in both. The Refugee is a little more comic, more physical, almost close to musical theatre.”

Tamagna is very happy that more contemporary music is being written for men with a voice type like his. He sees it as a change in attitude towards the sound and the idea, in parallel with altering social attitudes and openness about gender. (http://nicholastamagna.com/)

Re contemporary music, one could wonder how other kinds, such as pop, fit into and influence “Flight.” It was written in the 90s and, not updated or revised, could be considered some kind of period piece. (“There are parts that feel nostalgic,” Darrah remarks.) Asked whether such influences were there, Dove replied “I have no idea.”

Rountree finds that elements of 1990s pop may resonate inside, but that’s something subtle which no one might notice. “It has an awareness of that musical period, an awareness of pop music without resembling it. I don’t think any of these melodies could have been written without an awareness of classic rock, especially the use of rhythms which also seem to come from minimalist models.” (http://www.jonathandove.com/)

A review in the U.K’s Telegraph  cites a “skillful and intelligent libretto, ” also saying that the music has “a bright American sheen, closer in idiom to Broadway than the Met…(with) warmth and energy that sustains attention and communicates humanity.”

There’s no question that “Flight” is a truly modern opera. And that’s what Weitz wanted. “One that’s right for our audiences, very approachable, poignant and funny. It also fits perfectly into this season, along with ‘La bohèmeand “Cosí fan tutte’, being about relationships and their complications, about fidelity and self discovery.” Advisory: this opera has adult content and “may not be suitable for younger audiences.”

By the way, Opera Omaha offers free public discussions about themes within “Flight” guided by Omaha-based composer, musician, and teacher Dr. Stacey Barelos. They are Tuesday April 4th and 11th  from  6 to 7 pm at Le Bouillon, in the Old Market at 1017 Howard St. Reservations are suggested.

In this story the characters do discover much about themselves. Watching them and hearing them are bound to be discoveries for everyone just outside the confines of that airport. The audience.

Opera Omaha’s production of Flight is Friday and Sunday April 21st & 23, at Slosburg Hall, Orpheum Theater, 409 S 16th St. Friday: 7:30 p.m. Sunday 2 p.m. Tickets $19-$99. http://www.operaomaha.org/

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