Flight – an Opera
Flight from? Flight to? Flight with?
Who knew that when the exciting and innovative company, Opera Parallèle, committed to producing Jonathan Dove’s comic opera “Flight,” that it would so resonate with timeliness? The production comes on the heels of President Trump’s executive order (now suspended under judicial review) banning immigration to the U.S. by citizens of several countries. As a result of the ban, chaos ensued at airports around the world, with unwitting travelers being stranded, turned back, and even arrested. A central thread to “Flight” concerns a refugee without papers from an unnamed country, stuck in the terminal of an unnamed airport.
Librettist April De Angilis was inspired by the real-life incident of an Iranian national who spent several years in the terminal of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport without being able to escape. That bizarre incident was also the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film “Terminal” starring Tom Hanks.
So, when countertenor Tai Oney, as The Refugee, opens the proceedings with a gleaming countertenor voice supported by a soaring orchestra and an equally soaring soprano, Nikki Einfeld, as The Controller, we know that we’re in for a different style of opera – one filled with pure comedy, but tinged with pathos and tragedy, and imbued with depth. The opera itself is delightful; the production rich and compelling; and the principals of exemplary quality, across the board. The singing by each is so fine that it would be unfair to single out some and not others.
The other focus of “Flight” is relationships, ultimately, with a theme of renewal. We meet a couple who are leaving for a holiday in the sun (Amina Edris and Chaz’men Williams-Ali), and while they exude outer cheer, privately, they reveal the fractures in their marriage. A diplomat is en route to assignment in Minsk, but his pregnant wife resists leaving the airport (Eugene Brancoveanu and Renée Rapier). And two hormonal cabin crew members are in constant quest for intimacy (Maya Yahav Gour and Hadleigh Adams). A mysterious Older Woman, played by Catherine Cook, is unmatched but claims that her young partner will be arriving. The final addition is the Immigration Officer, played by Philip Skinner.
As the action proceeds, inclement weather grounds all flights. The travelers are stuck in the terminal, and for a time, they become The Refugee’s society. The libretto allows players extended stage time. Each player is granted abundant solo time, and a number of pieces engage the full ensemble. Among the ensembles, perhaps the funniest follows a scene in which the cabin crew members are caught in flagrante delicto. To deflect their own thoughts, whether lascivious or disapproving, the passengers change direction by singing about the holiday spirit, dominated by a rapid fire laundry list of vacation needs.
Act 3 is particularly strong emotionally as the passengers’ stories reach conclusion. Musically, the holiday wife, who has been betrayed, has a powerful tract of rage punctuated by coloratura trills. This is quickly followed by the diplomat’s wife’s painful birthing aria, and The Refugee’s welcoming a baby into the world. Each artist nails it, as does the ensuing ensemble.
This 1998 opera falls well within the modern idiom with post-minimal aspects. The score is very accessible and while the music is not hummable, its melodic lines are often quite pleasant with some phrases not unlike pop genre. The composer incorporates hints of Latin and Javanese gamelan with extensive variety and generous use of percussion from marimba to glockenspiel. Artistic Director Nicole Paiement conducts the orchestra briskly, capturing the bright, lush, and occasionally pensive elements of the score. The musicians respond with accuracy in timing and tone.
Director Brian Staufenbiel assembles all of the right pieces to give the production a fitting look and feel from movement to costumery. A particular asset is the set designed by Dave Dunning, which is a strong representation of a terminal with its practical but imposing appearance of angular lines and functional fittings. Interestingly, the Yerba Buena venue is also spare and modern, and parallel lines of the stage even extend into the framing of the stage.
The opera was scheduled for only three performances, so the opportunity to see this delightful production may be gone, but it is another example of the consistent quality and diversity of work that this company offers.
“Flight” is produced by Opera Parallèle and plays at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, San Francisco, through February 12, 2017.