A vague ensemble opera: Flight The cast of Minnesota Opera's staging of Flight, 2020. Photo: Dan Norman.

A vague ensemble opera: Flight

Callie Cooper

On Saturday, January 25, 2020, Minnesota Opera opened their production of Flight, with music by Johnathan Dove and libretto by April De Angelis. The opera, inspired by the story of Persian refugee Mehran Nasseri, was commissioned by Glyndebourne Opera in 1998; this was the Minnesota premiere of the work.

The set was simple - how much can you really glam up an airport terminal? The controller room was upper stage left, benches below with a gate desk, and a staircase upstage. Behind all that, there were projections of the runway, an effective addition to the haziness of the score. The orchestration was spot-on in conveying the bored anticipation/time warp of the terminal life. Geoffrey McDonald leads the orchestra in Dove’s surprisingly tonal score. David Radames Toro directs the show faithfully to the libretto and score.

Crystal E. Williams as Stewardess, Deanne Meek as Older Woman, and Christian Thurston as Steward in Minnesota Opera's staging of Flight, 2020. Photo: Dan Norman.

Soprano Katrina Galka was the Air Traffic Controller, and given some very demanding high notes. I was mostly confused by her character. During a scene change she came out in front of the scrim and sang an aria whilst hitting herself. (It was very Judge Turpin from Sweeney Todd.) This character is very dark and doesn’t seem to have a drop of human kindness, but it is never explained why. The Controller was almost omnipresent in the glass control booth above the stage, and when not singing, she began obsessively disinfecting her work space. The central character of the Refugee was sung by countertenor Cortez Mitchell. At times it was hard to hear Mr. Mitchell over the orchestra, but he exhibited a sweet tone.

Mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek sang the role of the older woman who wished to remain “inconspicuous” as she waited for her cabana boy fiancée from Majorca. She was one of the more interesting characters on the stage, an aging woman wanting companionship. Renée Rapier sang the pregnant Minsk woman, the other sympathetic character. Ms. Rapier gave a consistently powerful tone that was exciting; my favorite musical moment was her soliloquy over the ensemble, with the orchestra brimming below her.

Cortez Mitchell as Refugee in Minnesota Opera's staging of Flight, 2020. Photo: Dan Norman.

The characters of Tina and Bill were sung by Lisa Marie Rogali and Christian Sanders, both current young artists with the company. Their superiors capitalize the two artists’ chemistry (they were also cast as a duo in last season’s La rondine). While there was some chemistry between the characters that was entertaining, their main plot line was marriage problems that they hope will be fixed by a tropical vacation. It is quickly revealed that these marital problems all seem to be stemmed from problems in the bedroom. Without giving away any major spoilers, the couple angrily airs their dirty laundry and that pushes one of the spouses to spend the night with an airport employee.

Christian Thurston and Chrystal E. Williams were the dynamic duo of Stewards for the “Minnepost Airlines”. They perfectly embodied the face splitting smiles and charms of stewards of all airlines. And, I would imagine, perfectly portrayed the fly by night, adrenaline addicted life style of some flight attendants. The ensemble was rounded out by Nicholas Davis who sang as the Minksman and baritone Andrew Gilstrap as the immigration officer.

Lisa Marie Rogali as Tina and Christian Sanders as Bill in Minnesota Opera's staging of Flight, 2020. Photo: Dan Norman.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what the main point of the story was from the creators’ viewpoint. What statement were they trying to make? Was it that these strangers were being so callous towards a needy person in an airport? Or was it their myriad of superficial problems? (At the risk of sounding callous myself, none of the characters’ problems were really that superficial, it’s just that they weren’t given the context and depth to pull at the heart strings.)

It seemed to be a two-and-a-half-hour opera about people being their worst in a confined space. It was, basically, a series of vignettes that could be amusing and meaningful in a shorter format. A telling example is the Controller and Refugee’s extremely nebulous relationship. For instance throughout the show he would look pleadingly at her at times and she would say “I hope you suffer”. As an audience member, I had to ask,

Andrew Gilstrap as Immigration Officer, Cortez Mitchell as Refugee, and Katrina Galka as the Controller in Minnesota Opera's staging of Flight, 2020. Photo: Dan Norman.

It was never explicitly stated that the Refugee stayed in the controller room for example, the first few weeks of his hiding at the airport. We were just expected to infer any number of things. That’s what I dislike about some operas, when the audience members have to do the heavy lifting, mending over the holes in a narrative when they should be just sitting and soaking in the performance.

But, to get off my very subjective soap box, it is commendable that Minnesota Opera champions new and contemporary works.

Minnesota Opera’s production of Flight runs through February 2.

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