The Consul: Kafkaesque or Orwellian?

By Reuven Pinnata | Staff Writer

I have to confess that I was a bit let down when I first knew what the Seattle Opera was doing after their glorious production of Rigoletto. The Consul—I was quite sure I’d never heard of it before. I was eager to immerse myself in my second operatic experience, and the operas I had in mind were mainly the standard repertoire—Norma, La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, or Carmen. However, I soon learned what an interesting opera The Consul is. It is a political thriller, telling the story of a woman named Magda Sorel who is desperately trying to leave a nameless totalitarian state, along with her mother and infant son, to join her freedom-fighter husband John Sorel. (Then I was pretty sure I’d read a similar Kafka story.) The composer is Gian Carlo Menotti, and it was first performed in 1950, the same year it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

The Consul (photo courtesy of the Seattle Times)
The Consul (photo courtesy of the Seattle Times)

Operas have had their share of silly plots. Case in point:Verdi’s Il Trovatore includes a mother mistakenly throwing her own baby into the fire. In their defense, sublime music can make up for the weak stories, and sometimes you don’t need to understand what an aria is about to appreciate its beauty (that “La donna e mobile” tune you hum has a terrible meaning). However, the story of The Consul is at least as important as its music. On a closer look, one might suppose that the music is designed to serve the story, which is perhaps why the whole thing felt as real and as relevant as I’m sure it did 50 years ago.

Magda’s story is something all of us can imagine happening to a mother currently living in Ukraine or Venezuela. The smell of war is electric in the air, and you and your loved ones stay inside the house as much as possible. You know you’re just a hair’s breadth away from hell breaking loose, and you only have one goal in your mind—escape. That’s what Magda is trying to do when she goes to the consulate; her every move is constantly watched by the Secret Police who want information about her husband’s whereabouts, and her mother and her infant son are dying. But instead of immediate help, she meets the Secretary, a woman who dwells among towering file cabinets and reiterates the words “paper” and “form” like a broken talking doll. Behind the tall door is the Consul’s office, but he is always “too busy.” In the end, Magda’s fate is left in the hands of the Secretary (gatekeeper to the Consul) and the Consul himself (if he really exists).

Watching this opera, one can’t help thinking about countries that are currently mired deeply in political turmoil.In a recent blog post, the Seattle Opera discussed the relevancy of The Consul with Michelle Muri, Development Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NIRP), and Robert Gibbs, its founder. According to Gibbs, immigration policy is still very much a problem in present day United States; he says that the Obama administration has “deported two million people in the last few years.” And these people aren’t just isolated individuals. Most immigrants settle in the States because they decide to get married and have a family here. This means that when these people are sent back, their families are torn apart, too. Meanwhile, according to Gibbs, “because of the gridlock in Congress, no new legislation has been created setting out a way for the millions of people who are already here to acquire legal status.” The President can provide some limited, temporary protection, he adds, but in the end, it is up to Congress. We also don’t know what these people are actually being sent back to. As an example, Muri brings up the case of a man named Muktar who, as a teenager, escaped from Somalia during times of political turbulence. He, along with other forty young men, ended up in South Africa, before making his way to Central America through Cuba, Brazil, and Mexico. He was, however, detained when he tried to get into Texas and was sent to Tacoma, where he was finally rescued by the NIRP. His story could have been Magda’s.

The problem also works the other way around—there are thousands of people who are trying to enter in order to seek refuge. Muri says that “[g]enerally, people don’t come to this country because they wanted to leave their entire lives and everything they knew behind. In many cases, they’re escaping from something horrifying, or fighting for their lives.” But with thousands of people, sometimes we can’t help but misunderstand. People from Ukraine or Venezuela who are in the middle of a bloody conflict, persecuted same-sex couples from Russia or Middle East—people turn into mere statistics, behind which we are unable to discern human faces. The Consul has rendered its audience a service in that it has given a character for them to keep in mind the next time they talk about the problem of immigration—the everywoman Magda Sorel.

But of course, The Consul is an opera, a work of art, and the first duty it must fulfill is its duty to beauty. In the role of Magda Sorel is Marcy Stonikas (alternating with Vira Slywotzky), and boy, what sound poured out of her mouth! Voluminous, thick and luscious in tone, her voice is reminiscent of the great Wagnerian sopranos in the mold of Birgit Nilsson and Kirsten Flagstad. It shines particularly in Magda’s big aria “To this we’ve come,” where she expresses her frustration at blind bureaucracy and her unfailing belief in the humanity present in every person. The high notes aren’t just hit—they are covered in a voluptuous stream of full, unblemished sound. The role of the Secretary fits Sarah Larsen like a glove. She carries everything—her voice, her posture, the two horn-like buns on her head—with the perfect degree of clerical dignity. When, at the end of the story, she finally discovers the humanity in herself, she is equally convincing. Michael Todd Simpson, who plays John Sorel, possesses a magnificently penetrating baritone voice which proves riveting during his short time on stage. Lucille Beer is heartbreaking as Magda’s mother. Her role is to lament all through the story, but instead of being irritated, one can’t help but sympathize with her. She is at her best during her lullaby to Magda’s dying infant son. Steve LaBrie is deeply villainous as the Secret Police (you know you’ve done a good job when people actually heckle you during the curtain call), and the rest of the cast was also excellent (I tip my hat to Alex Mansoori, who managed to sing, dance, do magic tricks, and hypnotize his fellow visa-seekers all at once).

As a work of art, The Consul is a magnificent combination of drama, music, and storytelling—the pacing is intense, and the music is effective in propelling the action. However, as a response to the social problem of immigration, one needs to look at it differently. Through this opera, Menotti exposes a problem without proposing a solution, only because the solution seems to be out of the opera’s scope and intent. By making the universal problem personal—by giving it a face, so to speak—The Consul serves as a reminder of the human aspect that any form of bureaucracy cannot deny.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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