As recent events have reminded us, the Cold War wasn’t all that much fun. Sure, there was all that exciting espionage dramatized in The Americans. But for common people caught up in the standoff between two superpowers — which, in a sense, was pretty much all of u s— the conflict was a continual source of tension and dread.
With Russia and the West squaring off once again, this time over Ukraine, Opera Santa Barbara has picked the perfect time to revive Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul. Filled with characters who long for freedom, fear for their safety, and feel caught between two countries, this much-lauded musical drama will give audiences a visceral sense of a frightening era.
“It’s a very affecting story about how a political system can destroy the fabric of a family,” said stage director Jonathan Fox, who is moonlighting from his regular job as artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Company. “The plot itself is interesting, and then it has these surrealistic moments within it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in opera.”
Originally staged on Broadway in 1950, The Consul won the Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical. Set in an unnamed central European nation ruled by a repressive regime, it centers around Magda (Alexandra LoBianco), the young wife of a freedom fighter.
When her husband literally heads for the hills after being exposed, she makes her way to the consulate of an unnamed Western country, hoping to be granted asylum. Once there, she waits. And waits.
Thus begins her fierce battle with bureaucracy, which is embodied by the consulate’s secretary (Nina Yoshida Nelsen). The consulate is continually filled with people hoping for a visa, but as the secretary is constantly reminding them all, the requirements are highly specific. Papers must be in order.
Everyone has extenuating circumstances — Magda has a sickly child — but the secretary can’t, or won’t, make exceptions. Rules must be followed. “Everyone who has been annoyed waiting at the DMV, or trying to obtain documents to get a passport, will relate,” said conductor Brent Wilson.
Except, of course, our run-ins with bureaucrats are generally not matters of life-and-death. Magda’s is just that. “I broke down in rehearsal the other day, just because of the intense emotions,” said LoBianco, the recent winner of two major singing awards. “It hits me every time.”
Indeed, working on the piece has brought back Cold War memories for both her and Fox. “Back in the mid-’80s, before the Berlin Wall came down, I was in West Berlin, and I got a one-day visa to visit East Berlin,” the director recalled. “As I was leaving, I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can leave. The guys I was hanging out with can’t.’”
Around that same time, LoBianco, age 8, took a trip to the U.S.S.R. with her family. “I remember our tour guide was very standoffish at first,” she recalled, “but we gradually got through to her that we weren’t the enemy. At the end, my parents wanted to buy her a gift, and she told them, ‘I can’t even go into the stores you’re allowed to go into.’ I remember how grateful she was to my parents for buying her a boom box. That’s what she wanted for her kids. I’m remembering that as I’m playing Magda. As a kid, it helped me to really understand what it meant to be free.”
Like all of Menotti’s works aside from the Christmas classic Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Consul faded from view over the decades — a casualty of changing times and a lack of big tunes. “The music is kind to your ears and very passionate,” said Wilson, “but there aren’t melodies you go home and hum.”
That said, the conductor considers it a strong score, including 20 minutes or so of purely orchestral music. “He has a distinct style,” Wilson said of Menotti. “He’s an Italian composer for sure, in the way he writes vocal lines. But there’s also a lot of Americanism in his writing. He really understands drama.
“Menotti loved the waltz,” he added. “He brings it in quite a few times here. He uses the form ironically: Waltzes are very controlled and proper, and he brings them in just at the point where things spin out of control.”
When artistic director Jose Maria Condemi first approached Fox about directing the work, they discussed the possibility of updating it and changing its location — perhaps to Central America, to reflect today’s controversies over immigration.
Ultimately, they decided against it, and it turned out to be the right call. Thanks to Vladimir Putin, Europe once again is the ideal setting for this timeless story of fear, freedom, and frustration.
Opera Santa Barbara presents The Consul at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Friday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 27, at 2:30 p.m. Call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org for tickets and info.