Minnesota Opera’s Flight Got Me High on Opera

Photo by Dan Norman

My first post of 2020 I said that 2019 was the year I got serious about theater. Well 2020 might just be the year I get serious about Opera. Kelly Turpin Artistic Director of Arbeit Opera Theatre (AOT) has kindly offered to point me in the direction of Operas around the city so that I can get exposed to and learn more about this artform. Thanks in part to Kelly’s recommendations I already have three other Opera’s on the schedule before the end of March. Flight is perhaps the perfect Opera for a newcomer like me. There are a lot of elements in it that are not typical of Operas but are common in Musical Theater, so it makes a nice bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Flight is in English, many Opera’s are in Italian, German or really they can be any language. The Ordway still projects the English captions above the stage as they would with an opera in a language other than English. It’s necessary as operatic singing is so stylized at times it can be challenging to understand the individual words. Being able to glance above and see what is being sung, helps you tune your ear into the words. It also allows you to let go and listen to the sounds rather than words, for the beauty of the music and the emotional tone is the focus of Opera. Flight is also a comedy, my sense is that the majority of operas seem to be tragedies.

Flight music by Jonathan Dove and Libretto by April De Angelis which was first performed in 1998 uses as one inspiration the same true story as Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film The Terminal. Which is the story of an Iranian Refugee who lived in Charles De Gaulle Airport for nearly 20 years after his passport and refugee paperwork was stolen and he was not allowed to leave the airport by French authorities. In Flight, the refugee is one of an ensemble of characters the rest of whom would feel right at home in a Neil Simon play. We have the married couple, Bill and Tina, who are going on holiday to try and rekindle the intimate fires of their marriage. The older woman who has come to the airport to meet her fiance, a younger man she met when she was on vacation. There’s the Minsk Couple, the woman very pregnant who decides at the last minute not to get on the plane and her husband leaves without her. There’s the Stewardess and Steward who can’t keep their hands off each other. They even have a quicky behind the ticketing desk, pretty much in full view of everyone. There’s the Immigration Officer who appears from time to time to be watching for the refugee, who asks the others to help him and hide him so he won’t be arrested. Finally, there is the Controller, she watches everyone from up in her tower. She dislikes people but loves planes so she sits above and apart from the rest of the characters, though she does seem to feel a connection to the refugee. Act 1 sets up the characters and ends with the controller announcing that all flights are delayed due to storms. Act 2 takes place that night as the refugee befriends all of the women by giving them each a magic stone which they think will make their wishes come true. They all get drunk and when they discover they all have been given stones they turn on the refugee and end up knocking him unconscious. They then conceal his body in a trunk. Meanwhile, the Steward and Bill “hook up” in the Controllers Tower. Act 3 brings the end of the storms and the return of the Minsk Man on the first plane. The final act deals with the outcomes from the nights activities and the return of the Immigration Officer.

What that summary hints at but doesn’t fully convey, is the humor with which the Opera unfolds. I was not expecting the level of sexual content or the humor. The Stewardess and Steward played by Crystal E. Williams and Christian Thurston can’t keep their hands off each other, but only seem to enjoy it when there is the chance of being caught. The performers wring a lot of laughs out of these situations with extremly funny physical performances. Renee Rapier as the pregnant Minsk Woman has one of my favorite moments when in the last act she gives birth in the airport, her labor screams are performed Operatically, the last push being particularly effective. She is one of the stronger voices in the show and that particular part displayed her impressive vocal power while also earning a laugh. Lisa Marie Rogali as Tina and Christian Sanders as her husband Bill had the most easily understandable voices. Sanders in particular along with Thurston, were two performers that I rarely, if ever, needed to look at the projected titles. Cortez Mitchell as the Refugee gives a beautifully soulful acting performance, and clearly had an elegant voice, but it lacked the power of projection. I was seated in the first half of the theater center stage and there were times I couldn’t hear him at all. Perhaps it was a pitch my ears have trouble hearing. Aside from The Refugee, I did have trouble hearing Andrew Gilstrap as the Immigration Officer as well. In general, I was very impressed with the talents of all the performers. Opera is surely one of the most difficult styles of singing, the breath control needed is truly astonishing. While in Musical Theater you have songs that you go out humming, that isn’t the case with Opera. Here, the music flows over you, it doesn’t seem to lead the lyrics the way a show tune will, rather it accompanies the vocal performance. The orchestra conducted by Geoffrey McDonald supported the singers magnificently.

The scenic design by Dave Dunning and the projections design by David Murakami was extraordinary. The set is a two level airport terminal, the upper level contained the Controllers tower as well as the boarding gates. The lower level was the waiting area and ticketing desk and in the background there are large video screens. Director David Radames Toro uses the two level set design to great effect in several instances. Shifting focus between what is happening with the women and the refugees on the main level and the two men getting to “know” each other up in the Controllers tower. Also, the Immigration Officer looking for the Refugee from the upper level adds tension and a sense of the hunter and his prey as the refugee tries to avoid being seen below. It also illustrates the role of the Controller who is always apart and looking down on the others physically and otherwise. The projections on the wall at times display what would be realistic backgrounds of planes pulling up to the gates, or illustrating the storm. At other times, it’s more stylized with multiple planes from different angles filling the screens. One of the most interesting uses was when the refugee was telling his story of how he came to be in the airport with no papers. The screens frost over as he tells about the cold he experienced during is flight, and then when it is revealed what happened to his brother, whom he has been waiting for, the way the projection handles that, brings an added level of emotion, in one of the few serious moments in the evening.

If you are intimidated by Opera but also curious, Flight is the perfect place to start. Accessible and funny, it is filled with performers who make you laugh while also moving you with their singing. I was hoping for an evening of fine music and talented vocals, expecting it to be impressive, I was not expecting it to be this much fun. This is for mature audiences, I would not recommend it for anyone younger than high school age. Flight runs through February 2nd, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://mnopera.org/