Encore Michigan

Opera Modo brings Menotti’s ‘The Consul’ to the front-page at Jam Handy

Review February 22, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–Seventy years ago Gian Carlo Menotti wrote his first full-length opera, The Consul, and it went on to have an eight month run on Broadway, and collected a Pulitzer Prize for writing. The story, about people caught up in the soul-crushing, often desperate bureaucracy of immigration, is revived here by Opera Modo in a clever and compelling production.

A woman, Magda (Nicole Joseph), whose husband John (Branden C.S. Hood) is a freedom fighter on the run from the secret police, has her attempts to leave an unnamed European country repeatedly frustrated by the bureaucracy of the consulate she petitions for a visa. She never actually gets to see the consul, and after her baby and her mother (Kaswanna Kanyinda) die, and her husband is arrested, she meets with her own tragedy.

This opera is hardly a Cold War relic. Indeed, immigration is in our ears and on the news pages every hour of every day, thanks to the current regime in Washington. Right here in Michigan, people who have already waited years to have asylum immigration applications processed have now had years more added to the waits because of the Trump Regime’s war against immigration from Mexico, Central America and South America.

And it’s not just in the U.S. Refugees from African countries and Syria are persecuted and treated as pawns across Europe.

Magda runs up against the Consulate secretary (Julia Hoffert) who is a wall of redundant procedures and documents.  And she is joined by a gallery of fellow Visa seekers: Ms. Kofner, a trans played by Aaron von Allmen; an un-named woman (Lindsay Terrell); Anna Gomez (Christina Swanson); Vera Boronel (Lara Alami); Magician Nika Magadoff (Adrian Leskiw) and Assan (Kurt Clare).

The production, directed by Danielle Wright and music directed by Steven McGee is a clever piece of work performed in the Jam Handy space on Grand Blvd. The space, a large square empty room, has a foyer separated from the performance space. Wright uses it, though, for Magda’s apartment, despite there being two sizable columns between the actors and the audience who are in free-standing folding chairs. The effect is something like looking at people through large picture windows (though there is no glass) or in a diorama.

Historically, this opera has not been treated so well by critics, often being called “clumsy” and the music borrowing heavily from others. Both criticisms are true. I think the reason for the long Broadway run (the opera is also often referred to as being a hybrid of opera and musical theatre, which I disagree with), and the Pulitzer is that it was the first work to deal with the crushing subject of immigration in a big way, and outside the more limited commercial world of Yiddish theater, which, of course, dealt with the theme many times.

Seeing opera in the raw Jam Handy space always feels a but like seeing “underground opera,” which is actually part of Opera Modo’s general appeal. Not a tuxedo or mink wrap in sight. The Consulate is staged on an elevated platform, behind the audience. But we were advised to hang up all our coats, because we would be cued a handful of times during the three act opera to stand up, and spin our chairs around to see the action. It was more charming than fussy.

The cast I saw on February 21 was an African-American family. The production with four consecutive performances also has a white family cast featuring Ben King Quale as John, Alice Fabiszewsi as the Mother Jennifer Cresswell as Magda.

Ms. Joseph as Magda is an excellent mezzo soprano and her acting skills are also top notch as the anxiety-filled Mother and wife. Ms. Kanyinda is also very good, and her singing chops are very much up to the lead’s from her somewhat limited supporting role. Ms. Hoffert not only nails her role as the static Secretary, but her role is given a wrenching aria toward the end of the story and she knocks it out of the park.

Wright is very plugged into the opera community, being a performer herself, and she deserves credit for nurturing talent that ay never see a starring turn at Michigan Opera Theatre with all that goes with that.

Mr. McGee carries the music load on keyboard by himself, and he certainly rises to the occasion.

At the end of the opera, the final fantasy/dream scene has a nod to our current immigration debate. It may seem a tad blunt for some patrons, but it is a worthy effort to signal why this opera is as contemporary today as it was in 1950 without necessarily resorting to a curtain speech.

Check it out. Three more times to see it. Click here for ticket and performance info.