Always Timeless

Dayton Opera’s The Consul echos issues of the day

Photo: Magda Sorel, played by Kara Shay-Thomson.

By Eric Street

Opera has a powerful  track record for expressing universal themes in memorable fashion, but the themes in Dayton Opera’s upcoming production feel as timely as today’s newspaper. If you haven’t already, now’s the time to reserve your tickets for Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, which opens Friday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. and continues Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 at 3 p.m. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center.

If you’ve ever wondered what Gian Carlo Menotti composed besides his touchingly wistful Christmas-miracle opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, look no further. The Consul precedes Amahl by a year, and it cleaned up by winning both the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 1950 New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical after its nearly eight-month run on Broadway. The Consul was Menotti’s first full-length opera and it brought him great success and critical acclaim. With the national televising of his Amahl the next year, Menotti left Broadway to enter America’s living rooms and hearts with the first opera ever commissioned and composed for television. Amahl and the Night Visitors appeared annually on NBC from 1951 through 1966, and enjoyed a run in Britain over the BBC. It remains one of the most frequently performed English-language operas.

But long before Menotti thought of writing about the Three Kings from the East, another East was much on his mind: Eastern Europe. America shared his concern in the dawning of what has become known as the Cold War era. Although World War II ended in 1945, the Soviet forces that wrested much of Europe from retreating German troops did not relinquish control. Instead, the twice-conquered countries of Eastern Europe now had puppet regimes, complete with full-scale totalitarian bureaucracies and secret police modelled on Soviet lines. This is the setting of The Consul – an unnamed European city behind the Iron Curtain. The time is the present.

“The themes that permeate Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul – the plight of immigrants, the consequences of oppressive, totalitarian governments, and the life numbing and defeating effects of bureaucracy – are themes that are all too present in today’s headlines…,” says Tom Bankston, Dayton Opera Artistic Director.  “This award winning opera has remained timeless since its 1950 premiere on Broadway.  Its themes also line up so well with the theme of UD’s First Year Arts Immersion Program, with which Dayton Opera is collaborating … ”

Nearly 2,000 first-year students at the University of Dayton will attend the Sunday matinee performance of The Consul as part of the University’s First-Year Arts Immersion. Now in its fifth year, the program is a partnership between UD and the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. Faulty teaching introductory English, history, religious studies, and philosophy courses are invited to incorporate specific themes related to the arts event into their classes.

“The program’s overarching theme is hospitality,” Bankston says, “and the discussion of the idea of welcoming “the other” and what happens when “the other” is not treated with the kind and welcoming hand of hospitality.  There could not be a better alignment with The Consul’s message.”

Dr. Sharon Davis Gratto, who is Graul Chair in Arts and Languages at UD, agrees. “Tom Bankston selected this work well before the election of Donald Trump and the related immigration issues that followed. This is why the opera is particularly relevant to this time in America’s history and to immigration events in the news that are taking place all over the world. Just look at Myanmar (Burma) and Germany and its election on Sunday for two hot spots in today’s news. The Consul should serve to make people think and to arouse their consciousness about the frustration many feel when they try to get a visa to travel out of a country. Applying for visas and getting them is an increasingly problematic thing to do worldwide. And immigration issues lead to the plight of children,” Gratto says.

If you’ve never heard Amahl and you’re concerned about the unfamiliar music, never fear. “Menotti’s musical language is very accessible,” Bankston says, “after all, its premiere was on Broadway, not in the opera house.  It does have a sort of dark, gritty quality with moody spikiness, and has been described as ‘Hitchcock with recitatives’.  But above all it has powerful, sweeping tunes and a score that meshes amazingly with its moving libretto, which Menotti wrote.”

Gratto is similarly enthusiastic about the score. “The music is actually very melodic and can be extremely beautiful. The lullaby that John Sorel’s mother sings to the baby is one example, as is “To This We’ve Come,” sung by Magda Sorel. In the latter aria, Magda sings a beautiful song before exploding in frustration about her experience in the consulate. This aria is highly dramatic. Lots of the music is recitative-like as it represents the dialogue between customers in the consular office and the Consul’s secretary. Either way, the music is still very listenable. One interesting aria is sung in Italian by the foreign woman who is trying to get a visa and simultaneously translated into English by a kind stranger who is trying to help her. Because of operatic singing style, the English libretto will still be projected over the stage with surtitles for the purposes of clarity. There are some slightly dissonant spots in the brief sections played by the orchestra alone, but they are not extreme. After all, the music constantly expresses tension and emotion with intermittent beautiful melodies. The opera is approachable and not very long too, and its dramatic tension and story will draw in most audiences, even the skeptical,” she concludes.

“Menotti’s awesome!,” declares Dr. Minnita Daniel-Cox, who sings the role of Anna Gomez. “The music’s so rich, I can see scenes. It’s really cinematic — so emotional! The music’s catchy, and you can tell he wrote it with the visuals in mind. It’s expressive. Come to The Consul just like you’re going to a movie – it’s accessible. Menotti’s got something to say, and you should come hear it!”

Early reports on the sets also sound promising. “We were lucky enough to be able to purchase an existing and wonderful production from the Seattle Opera, which is on the one hand realistic, particularly in the apartment of the Sorels,” Bankston explains.  “The consulate office, however, is over-scaled with its looming and what seems like endless file cabinets that express the oppressive bureaucracy.”

The talent assembled to make this production soar is impressive. Gary Briggle returns to Dayton Opera for an unprecedented fourteenth time to direct this gripping modern opera. Briggle was most recently in Dayton to direct Leoncavallo’s tragic I Pagliacci. Before that, he has tackled some of Dayton Opera’s most challenging productions, including Stella Sung’s The Book Collector paired with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in May 2016, as well as the groundbreaking Dayton premiere of Dead Man Walking in February 2015. His other past performances, either on stage or at the directing helm, include Dayton Opera productions of Candide, The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S Pinafore, The Barber of Seville, Porgy and Bess, The Tragedy of Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro, and, perhaps most memorable, his engagement in Hansel and Gretel in 2014, where Briggle directed and performed the menacing, over-the-top role of the Witch.

“We have an exciting cast of singing actors assembled for this production, headed by Kara Shay Thomson’s highly acclaimed portrayal of the pivotal character of Magda Sorel,” Bankston says.   “A review of her performance of this role with Florida Grand Opera said: “Magda Sorel demands a singing actress with extraordinary musical and dramatic gifts. Kara Shay Thomson is riveting, completely commanding the stage in every scene,” he quotes.

Conducting the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for this production of The Consul is Dr. Patrick Reynolds. “I am thrilled to be part of the Dayton Opera production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, and I will always be grateful to Tom Bankston for his support, and for inviting me to conduct this riveting and timely drama”, said DPO associate conductor, Patrick Reynolds. Reynolds is celebrating his twentieth year with the Dayton Philharmonic this season.

For the lead role of Magda Sorel, soprano Kara Shay Thomson returns to Dayton Opera, having sung the lead role in the 2013 production of Tosca. The New York Times praises Kara’s presence and vocal prowess with the following recent review: “From the first phrases sung by Kara Shay Thomson, a compelling American soprano with a plush, vibrant, powerful voice, you do not know whether to pity or fear her.” Dayton Opera welcomes Kara Shay Thomson back to the Mead Theater stage with open arms. After this role as Magda Sorel, Kara Shay will return to Dayton Opera for another title role performance in the May 2018 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot.

Making her Dayton Opera debut in this production in the impassioned role of The Mother is mezzo-soprano Cindy Sadler. Dayton Opera welcomes this new artist, who has been heralded for her rich, satiny voice as much as for her impeccable characterizations.

Returning to Dayton Opera in other pivotal roles in this moving drama are some of Dayton Opera’s favorite artists, including baritone Tyler Alessi as John Sorel, mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas as The Secretary, bass-baritone Kenneth Shaw as The Secret Police Agent, tenor Robert Norman as The Magician, bass-baritone Thomas Hammons as Mr. Kofner, and baritone Alexander Harper as Assan.  Dayton Opera also welcomes back three Dayton-area artists, all University of Dayton Music faculty: soprano Andrea Chenoweth as The Foreign Woman, soprano Minnita Daniel-Cox as Anna Gomez, and mezzo-soprano Ryu-Kyung Kim as Vera Boronel.

So who should come? “Everyone who loves opera and theatrical drama, who is interested in immigration issues, or who wants to hear a wonderful opera by Menotti beyond the one most people know, Amahl and the Night Visitors,” Gratto says without hesitation. “I love the interesting and diverse characters in this opera, including a magician. I also think the audience may find a character or two with whom they can relate in some way. The tragic ending, by the way, is so typical of opera.”

“Everyone should experience this amazing American opera!,” Bankston concurs.  “Perhaps it is a bit heavy for the very youngest, but I know it is safe to say an audience of wide-ranging ages will all not soon forget this heart-grabbing piece.”

The Plot

Political dissident John Sorel is on the run from the secret police. His wife, Magda, and his mother conceal him. The police arrive to search, but their efforts are in vain. John plans his escape and tells Magda to apply for a visa to leave the country. He will wait at the border until he knows his family is safe.

The emotional high point of the opera comes when Magda, thwarted in her quest for a visa, addresses the Consul’s indifferent secretary in “To this we’ve come,” a stirring lament over the world’s inhumanity to the suffering. Incensed at her request to fill out more forms, Magda explodes with “I ask you for help, and all you give me is papers! Papers!” Her thrilling conclusion warns tyrants and petty bureaucrats alike: “Oh, the day will come . . . when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains!”

Want to learn even more about The Consul? Come one hour prior to both performances to hear pre-performance talks presented by UD Music Professor Dr. Sam Dorf inside the Mead Theatre.

Menotti’s The Consul opens Friday, Oct. 20 and continues through Sunday, Oct. 22 in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center, 1 West Second Street in Dayton. Tickets from $28 to $94 and are available at www.DaytonPerformingArts.org or by calling Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630. Senior, student, and military discounts are available. For more information on tickets, or how to subscribe to the 2017-2018 The Great Ones Season, visit www.DaytonPerformingArts.org.

Tags: ,

Eric Street
Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Law & Disorder: The Docket 9/19

L&D

Major key Last weekend a local couple was watching TV in their living room, having a relaxing evening, when suddenly […]

Law & Disorder: The Docket 9/12

L&D

Jesus take the wheel A local couple recently decided to visit their church on a particularly warm and muggy Sunday […]

Law & Disorder: The Docket 9/5

L&D

Flightless In a local park, police were dispatched to the crime scene. A woman called the police when she realized […]

The Docket: 8/29

285_2697643

Stolen in a nanosecond Just last week a woman visited her local sheriff’s office to place a tip on a […]

Law & Disorder: The Docket 8/22

L&D

Totally secure knot …not In a local home a garage door was broken into. This garage door was perfectly secured […]