We’ve all been there.
The familiar dread that accompanies air travel — Will my flight be delayed? Will I end up stranded? — has only become aggravated in the time of the coronavirus. But the reverse side to such anxieties is the promise of escape, which leads us ever onward. The resulting ambiguity gives airports their tremendous symbolic power.
This double-edged aspect is brilliantly captured by “Flight,” the opera by contemporary composer Jonathan Dove and playwright/librettist April De Angelis that receives its company premiere in Seattle Opera’s new production. But instead of a livestream from the McCaw Hall stage, the performance on offer is a recently made film of the opera shot on location at the Museum of Flight in Tukwila. “Flight” will be available to the general public to stream ($35 to access) April 23-25 at seattleopera.org; it’s available to Seattle Opera 2020-21 season subscribers now through April 25.
“Both the musical language and the libretto are very cinematic,” says director Brian Staufenbiel. “And the fact that ‘Flight’ is loosely based on a true story about a person being nationless makes it more relevant than ever.”
“Flight” was inspired by the plight of Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who, as a result of losing his passport, resided for nearly 18 years in a departure lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport. In the opera, a character simply named Refugee interacts with various travelers, who are enmeshed in their own troubles, as they randomly cross paths in an airport lounge. (De Angelis gives almost all of the characters archetypal names — such as The Controller and The Immigration Officer — to underscore the universality of their situations.)
Nasseri’s story may sound familiar thanks to the 2004 film “The Terminal,” directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks. But Dove and De Angelis, who are both British, wrote their opera first. Since being premiered at Glyndebourne Opera in 1998, “Flight” has had enormous success and received numerous productions around the world.
Part of the opera’s ongoing appeal comes from its savvy balance of tragic and comic, at times even slapstick, elements. Dove cites Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” as a model for his approach. His score similarly mixes witty ensemble pieces with character-revealing arias. Dove’s style blends elements of American minimalism with the humanism of Benjamin Britten but is never merely derivative. “The music is another character and really pushes the drama forward,” said conductor Viswa Subbaraman. “It illuminates the plot.”
Despite being frequently performed, “Flight” had never been presented as a film opera before Seattle Opera’s production. (The original Glyndebourne staging was merely taped for broadcast.) Similarly, it had never been set in a space as plausibly close to an airport as the Museum of Flight, billed as the world’s largest independent air-and-space museum.
“We were able to even use some of the museum displays in the T.A. Wilson Great Gallery — like the prototype Boeing 737 for a scene where we could make it look like one of the characters gets on an actual plane,” says Doug Provost, Seattle Opera’s director of production.
For a crucial scene featuring an air traffic controller, who is played by a coloratura soprano, Sharleen Joynt was filmed atop the tower at Boeing Field. Although she has sung the role before, Joynt found an extra thrill in “doing something different with an opera that is brutally difficult.”
The idea of using the space for a production occurred during a tour Provost and Seattle Opera’s general director were given by the Museum of Flight president. “The original idea was to see about the possibility of doing a small live performance for our patrons,” Provost says.
But when the lockdown was extended, they hit on the idea of continuing the company’s experiments with presenting opera as filmed performance, which began with last fall’s production of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.” The goal with “Flight,” says Staufenbiel, was to design a film on its own terms, “not a theatrical production to be taped.”
But the technical demands of filming “Flight” were on an altogether different level of complexity. The acoustics of such a vast space made live singing on location impossible, so the musical and visual layers had to be split.
Subbaraman recorded members of the Seattle Symphony performing Dove’s colorful score in Benaroya Hall, with the cast singing behind him from the audience space. The singers then had to act out their roles at the Museum of Flight, lip-syncing to the prerecorded soundtrack. They performed out of sequence, based on the location that had been prepped over the six days the museum was available for filming. Only one scene ended up being shot elsewhere (in the Opera Center’s costume shop).
“My role was to help the cast get into their characters in a way that would make sense on camera,” explains film director and editor Kyle Seago. “At the same time, we had to come up with techniques to accommodate COVID protocols for things like distancing. It was amazing to see the singers transform into actors in a different way than what usually happens onstage.”
An especially memorable example is the confluence of camerawork and performance in the Refugee’s revelatory aria near the end of the film. Dove writes the role for countertenor voice, accentuating the character’s position of “otherness” — between worlds, and literally between the extremes of vocal register represented by the stratospheric Controller and the Immigration Officer (bass Damien Geter).
“He remains elusive until this tour de force moment,” says Randall Scotting, who performs the Refugee. “And then he delivers this bombshell to the rest of the cast. For me, he represents the importance of empathy.”
For all the added elements of realism, Seattle Opera’s production isn’t a “period” piece set in the 1990s or, for that matter, in our era of COVID-19. Instead, says Seago, the Museum of Flight setting allowed cast and crew to evoke “the feeling of what it’s like to be about to take flight — both the elements of fear and of excitement of the unknown.”