Promotional Photo by Kevin Steele
Archive for April 2014

Spotlight on: “The Consul”

Posted in OSBlog, Past Events / Tags: no tag /

“To criticize a theater piece as too theatrical is as senseless as to criticize a piece of music for being too musical…. Modern dramatists are much too timid about ‘theater,’ and such timidity is fatal to an opera composer, for music intensifies feeling so quickly that, unless a situation is symbolically strong enough to bear this intensity, it becomes ludicrous by contrast.”

-Gian Carlo Menotti

About the Composer

Gian Carlo Menotti

Gian Carlo Menotti

Gian Carlo Menotti is a central figure in twentieth-century opera. His 25 operas, which include The Old Maid and the Thief, The Medium, The Consul, The Saint of Bleeker Street, and Amahl and the Night Visitors, have been performed all over the world, and not only in the traditional opera house. Menotti’s shows have been successful on Broadway, and he was one of the first composers to create operas intentionally for new twentieth-century media such as radio and television. Even today, seven years after his death, the arts festivals Menotti founded, in both Spoleto, Italy, and Spoleto, South Carolina, present important contemporary performers, artists, and speakers.

Menotti was born in 1911, in a mountainous village in northern Italy. He was sixth of eight children in a well-to-do family, and a bit of a child prodigy: he composed his first opera, The Death of Pierrot—like all his operas to his own libretto—at age 11. To encourage his gift, his mother moved the family to nearby Milan, the opera capital of Italy, and enrolled her teenage son at the Milan Conservatory. She also found ways of introducing him to Umberto Giordano, composer of the popular opera Andrea Chenier, and the important conductor Arturo Toscanini. When her husband died, Menotti’s mother moved to Colombia to oversee the family’s coffee business, and, on Toscanini’s advice, sent her son to the recently established Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, PA.

Menotti had never been away from his family and spoke no English. He was lucky to become fast friends at Curtis with another composition student, Samuel Barber. Menotti was invited to spend holidays with Barber’s family, who lived nearby. Barber’s aunt was one of America’s leading opera singers, and his straight-laced American Protestant family were in many ways the opposite of Menotti’s big, rambunctious Italian Catholic family. When both young men had graduated from Curtis, they embarked on a tour around Europe, partly with prize money Barber had received for a composition. They became a couple and, some years later, set up house in Mt. Kisco, about an hour outside New York City. A young poet named Robert Horan became a third member of the household. Barber and Menotti found him one night on a snowy street in Manhattan; the composers were coming from a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, the penniless poet from Grand Central Station, where he had been sleeping for the past three nights after hitchhiking to New York from California with his girlfriend, Pauline Kael (later to become the important film critic).

In the days when the Menotti-Barber-Horan house in Mt. Kisco was a weekend destination for New York City’s leading artists and intellectuals, Menotti’s star was rising as a creative artist. The Metropolitan Opera staged a brief comic opera of his and commissioned another; he wrote The Old Maid and the Thief for the NBC Radio Network (premiered on the air in 1939, and since produced hundreds of times onstage); and a couple of daring young Broadway producers organized a Menotti double-bill, The Medium, a gripping tragedy, followed by The Telephone, a comedy. The Consul premiered on Broadway (preceded by the traditional out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia) in 1950; its harrowing, ripped-from-the-headlines story and supremely theatrical blend of music and text won Menotti the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical Play. It ran for 269 performances on Broadway and, within a year, was being produced in Milan, London, Paris, Berlin, Zurich, and Vienna. Menotti’s biggest audience was that for Amahl and the Night Visitors, a one-act, family-friendly Christmas-themed opera, originally broadcast on television on December 24, 1951. By the 1970s, Amahl was the most frequently performed opera in the United States, beating out La bohème and The Marriage of Figaro and inventing that television genre in which a miracle solves the problems of a poor, deserving child at Christmastime.

The same conscience that inspired The Consul also drove Menotti to create the Spoleto Festival, first in Italy in 1958, then in South Carolina 20 years later. “The Festival satisfied a very selfish need,” Menotti told his biographer. “I became so completely disenchanted with the role of the artist in contemporary society. I felt useless. Art had become what Sam Barber calls ‘the after-dinner mint of the rich.’ I felt that the artist should become part of society—a needed member of society rather than just an ornament. That’s why I started Spoleto.”

Though more popular in his day than any other twentieth-century composer of operas, Menotti was never the darling of the critics or the musical intelligensia. But despite the controversy his name has always provoked, his legacy lives on in a handful of his operas and in the festivals he created.

Origins of The Consul

Alexandra LoBianco as Magda

Alexandra LoBianco as Magda

Gian Carlo Menotti invented the stories, wrote the libretti, composed the music, and stage directed all of his operas. He often generated stories out of characters and situations from his own life. For example, Menotti based Amahl on his own experience as a child when his injured leg returned to health after what appeared to be divine intervention. With The Consul, however, Menotti was writing less about himself and more about current events.

During World War II, a group of 25 Austrian refugees fled into Hungary. But because they didn’t have passports they were trapped for a week on a bridge between the two countries: neither Austria nor Hungary would admit them. Menotti, who was courted shortly after the war by Hollywood, wrote a script on this story for MGM. But the subject was deemed too depressing for the American movie-goer, and Menotti and Hollywood parted ways.

Shortly thereafter, the composer read another news item in the New York Times:

“IMMIGRANT A SUICIDE. WOMAN DENIED ENTRY TO U.S. HANGS HERSELF ON ELLIS ISLAND. Mrs. Sofia Feldy, a 38-year-old Polish immigrant, who was refused admission to the United States by a board of special inquiry at Ellis Island, Feb. 6, committed suicide by hanging at the Ellis Island detention room, the Immigrant and Naturalization Service announced yesterday. Mrs. Feldy was denied admission to the country, after her husband, Antoni Feldy of Chicago, testified that he had divorced her in November, 1940, on grounds of desertion. Mrs. Feldy, who came here January 19 with her daughter, declared she had received no notice of the divorce that her husband claimed he sent to her in Poland. Mr. Feldy agreed to accept his daughter, who was admitted on that basis, but his former wife was excluded by a vote of the board.”

Menotti changed the details, but dramatized the despair of the immigrant who has risked and lost everything. He also created for The Consul the small role of Anna Gomez, inspired by a young woman Menotti had seen in an Italian hotel room, who kept interrupting her own conversation with her father with intermittent shouts of ‘No’ as she nervously ran her hand through long dark hair with a white streak. And as for the old Italian peasant woman, Menotti met her on a plane from Italy to New York: “She was tiny, like some shriveled child, and her wrinkled skin, the heritage of peasant ancestors, was the color of earth…. Her papers were not in order and no one could understand her naïve explanations that she murmured in her strange accent. I did all I could to assist her but was finally obliged to leave her to the authorities.”

“Hitchcock with Recitatives”: The Music of The Consul


Patricia Neway, 1950

New York City was a nine-newspaper town in 1950, and all of them raved about The Consul. Olin Downes of the New York Times led the pack, calling the new work “an opera of eloquence, momentousness, and intensity of expression…this opera is written from the heart, with a blazing sincerity and a passion of human understanding. It is as contemporary as the cold war, surrealism, television, and the atom bomb. It is torn out of the life of the present-day world, and poses an issue that mercilessly confronts humanity today. And this is done with a new wedding of the English language with music in a way which is singable, intensely dramatic and poetic by turns, and always of beauty.”

The great stumbling block for American opera composers has always been getting that wedding to work, that marriage between words and music. Like the perfect vinaigrette, it easily falls out of balance if these partners fail to achieve the right proportions. Menotti has structured his opera so that scenes of nerve-wracking tension, which rely more on orchestra, words, and acting, alternate with passages of lyrical effusion, in which the voices get to soar. In each scene, the drama tightens the screws until we can’t bear any more—at which point the characters’ emotions escape in song: in the trio “Now, o lips, say goodbye,” the quintet “In endless waiting rooms,” or the lullaby “I shall find for you shells and stars.”

Unlike the other characters, the Secret Police Agent and the Secretary seem incapable of expressing their inner selves lyrically. The Secretary, who seems to have no human emotions left, instead uses an irritatingly cheery waltz as her motif, plus the incessant sound of her typewriter. As for the auxiliary characters, they give Menotti the opportunity to keep varying the opera’s tone: he writes a pastiche of Puccini at his most emotional for his old Italian woman (the impact of her music undercut, however, by Mr. Kofner, who translates her words but not her emotions) and a chipper yet eerie patter song for the strange humbug magician, Nika Magadoff.

Menotti composed The Consul for a small orchestra by the standards of grand opera, one that prominently features the dry, brittle sound of the piano. Yet the orchestral interludes linking the scenes feature powerful music, such as the death march for Magda’s baby, which continue to tell the story and explore its powerful emotions. The greatest aria in The Consul is without doubt “To this we’ve come” (also known as “Papers!”), Magda’s breakdown before the Secretary at the end of the second act. At its conclusion, the soprano must ride the waves of a huge, almost Wagnerian orchestral sound; the orchestra plays a soaring melody as Magda cries out the words: “The day will come, I know, when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains! Warn the Consul, Secretary, warn him: that day neither ink nor seal shall cage our souls. That day will come, that day will come.”

– Courtesy of Seattle Opera


The Consul: A Cast Perspective

Posted in OSBlog, Past Events / Tags: no tag /

The Consul is a tragedy of the meek who live desperately beneath the burden of tyranny. Set in a nameless European country, the musical drama tells the story of men and women caught in the red tape of a Consulate, which bars their escape to freedom. The action centers primarily on the lives of Magda and John Sorel, their child, and John’s mother, when circumstances force them to depend on the refuge of the Consulate.  OSB sat down with Joshua Jeremiah, who plays the freedom fighter John Sorel, Buffy Baggott, who plays the mother and voice of reason, and Kirk Eichelberger, who plays the Secret Policeman (aka the “bad guy”), to gain their insights on this important work.

OSB:  Can you tell us about your character in this opera? 

Joshua.Jeremiah.webJoshua Jeremiah:  I play the role of John Sorel, who is a freedom fighter, and Magda Sorel’s husband, who is the main character of the piece.  I start the show injured, coming in from a night of trying to escape the police, and quickly decide it’s best for everyone if I leave town, thus setting in motion the rest of the plot.




Buffy Baggott:  I’m the character of the Mother. I’m John Sorel’s real mother, and the mother-in-law to Magda. I think she is somebody who has probably seen quite a bit in her days, and very possibly, the family has been involved in this kind of revolution or freedom fighting for a very long time. Although she is supportive of the entire family, this is starting to become a problem for her. In many ways she is very practical, has a bit of that impatient, no-nonsense gruffness that comes from experience. I think she has seen the same thing play out over and over again with these revolutionaries who she loves and, as happens for most people, it probably gets to be too much to bear. She’s kind of the heart of the family in many ways – caring for the child, and trying to care for her children as well, and being very concerned. I think the grandchild is her little love. And it’s all downhill from there.  Poor lady.

Kirk.EichelbergerWebKirk Eichelberger:  I’m playing the role of the secret policeman.  He’s structured as the bad guy in the opera, and I understand why they say that – he’s slimy, he’s underhanded, he does everything he can to destroy the lives of the principal characters of the show.  But, I also think that he has another side to him.  He’s just trying to do his job.  He’s just trying to make a living, and this just happens to be what he’s good at – finding the subversives and protecting the government, so I like to think of him not as pure bad, but as someone who has a very important job to do for the government.  And he believes that what he’s doing is right, and all the work he’s doing to this end in this opera is serving the greater good.   It’s my feeling that the majority of the actual officers who are put in this position held exactly that view.  So it doesn’t help me to think of him as evil or bad, but rather as someone who is placed in charged with doing a very harsh thing in the name of a greater good.

OSB:  What is your favorite moment in the opera?

Joshua:  My favorite moment in the opera is probably the end of the first scene – the trio between Magda, John, and my mother.  It’s about how we are overly emotional, and that we have to try and suppress those emotions, or else I would never leave.  To me it’s my favorite music of the show.  I think there are probably much more dramatic moments, but musically it just touches me and I love it.

Buffy:  I really enjoy the magic scene, which I’m not a part of at all, but seeing our guy doing all the magic tricks while he’s singing is a tour de force, I have to say, as someone who enjoys magic. I’ve been to the Magic Castle in Los Angeles and loved it. As far as other favorite scenes, I think everyone is going to enjoy the family’s trio at the end of the first scene. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music that you’ll probably ever hear, and one of the most bittersweet, yet uplifting parts of the opera. It sounds like grand opera when you hear it, and it’s just lovely.

Kirk:  Well, I have a big high “F”…it’s the hardest moment, and my favorite moment (laughs).  There are creepy moments with the secret policeman where he says “all we have to do is quicken the beat of your heart, because you cannot resist the beating of your own heart, and what that does to you…. you’ll tell us what we want to know.”  That’s really kind of creepy.  It’s a psycho-thriller type of a moment.  There’s another moment in the second scene where he tells her (Magda) that he likes her so much that he watches her “very carefully…” that he’s constantly watching her, and that he’s enjoying it on more than just a professional basis.  In that moment we cross into sort of a bad guy thing to do.  It’s very creepy.

OSB:  How is the Consul different from other operas you’ve done recently?

Kirk:  The obvious difference is that this opera is in English.  I’ve done a lot of English operas in my lifetime, and take great pleasure in them because the communication factor is much more immediate with English-speaking audiences.  It’s also much more of a political statement work than really anything I’ve ever done.  Politics generally doesn’t make a very good opera topic, but in this case he’s taken a general political viewpoint not aimed at a specific government or a specific leadership, and made it universally accessible.

Joshua:  I think one of the great parts about this show is that it’s a really well thought-out English libretto.  Since it’s in English, it is immediate.  People will be able to understand exactly what’s going on without reading the supertitles, and I think that’s important in opera, but also there are some beautifully poetic lines – some magnificent poetry.  It’s a heavy piece, but there are these wonderfully comic moments woven into the story.  There’s the magician scene that I think is fabulous, and you don’t generally see the blending of two very different things (magic and opera).

OSB:  Joshua, you mentioned that you thought the fact it’s in English makes it immediate – is there anything else about this particular opera that you feel is relevant to what is going on in the world today?

Joshua: On a local level, I think it’s incredibly important. It speaks about bureaucracy – in this country we have a sort of fundamental distrust of government, which is a relatively healthy thing – to distrust institutions that can wield power, but I think we’ve seen that kind of distrust taken to a whole new level (with the tea party), which can be patriotically unpatriotic.  On a global level, the oppression that the Sorels face, and the rest of the people in the country face…it goes on all the time – just look at what’s happening in Ukraine.  I did a show this past year in Hungary, and we had a Hungarian director who told us about what they do to the Roma, a group we would call “gypsies”. They are rounded up by the police and treated as second-class citizens.  We need to be constantly vigilant in fighting for the rights and equality of all people – no matter where they happen to be born, no matter the color of their skin or their sexual orientation.  I think it is amazingly pertinent, and will continue to be pertinent until we live in a Utopian society – so it will always remain pertinent. 

Kirk:  I think opera in general is relevant because it’s a very unique medium for communication.  You have all the artistic elements in play.  You have the highest caliber of written music, you’re employing the full force of the orchestra, you have the highest levels of poetry in the libretto, you have all the costumes, lights, props, and sets – so it’s the highest form of “art”, and in that case it’s a very unique way of communicating with audiences.  In this particular opera, because it has a particular political viewpoint on how governments should behave and how they should be treating their citizens, we get to say something unique about that.  The reason why it’s important is obvious:  not only is it something that’s happening in Russia and Ukraine, and certainly in South America, more and more we see it as something that’s happening that we are having to deal with in our own lives here in the United States.  If we bring up the name Edward Snowden, this theme reeks of all the NSA spying stuff that’s going on.  In this case, I play the NSA guy, and you know if you speak to the guys in the NSA, they all believe that what they are doing is for the greater good of the country, and that it needs to be done.  I’ve read so many books of Russian literature, and German literature all from the mid-1900’s, about the time when this was written, and it’s all the same story.  I tend to think of this theme that belongs to that time period, except it’s just not – we’re living it right now.  And we have the internet, and all these other things, and television the way it is, and our modern hairstyles, and whatever you want to bring into the fold and yet – here we are playing the exact same game over and over again.

Buffy:  This opera in particular is very relevant, mostly because it talks about borders and bureaucracy and how these things affect the human spirit (how they break it down), not to mention echoing current events in Russia, Ukraine and Venezuela who are going through huge political and civil rights difficulties. This opera echoes that. It’s kind of funny because these are those same problems, even though we’re not getting specific with this opera – that same idea of not having rights, that somehow your rights are being trampled and you’re trying to find a way to get those rights back, and you’re constantly being quashed. So between that, and how fighting for these rights effects the people left at home, is something I think we all need to think about. It even speaks to how difficult it is to get a passport, or a Visa to go into another country if you are a refugee, and all the questions we’re asking right now about our borders and how open they should be. In this way, I think this opera is very relevant in that it asks all those questions, presents them in another way than we are used to seeing and that’s good. That’s doing what I think in general opera should be doing, and why it’s still relevant is that it should be asking us to feel as much as we can feel for characters that maybe are not like us, and then ask all of those questions:  why do we feel for them, why are their stories important, why are these characters’ rights important?  So we can ask the same thing of Traviata – why do we love her (or do we?) even though she’s a “fallen woman,” and why do we think it’s unfair for her to give up her happiness for the reputation and future of this man’s sister as demanded by society? What are the ethics in this situation? …I like that opera encourages us to ask questions – and of course tells stories that are really interesting and compelling.  It’s also music for the soul.  Classical music is something that isn’t necessarily easy for a lot of people because we haven’t been surrounded by it like pop and rock, etc. But when you listen to it, you get a whole different reaction to it than something that’s easily consumable. It also teaches us to listen in a different way with a lot longer of an attention span than we’re using right now.  This is a great opera in that it’s challenging musically, and also challenging with its ideas.

OSB:  What do you think we should know going into this performance – what should we listen for?

Joshua:  It’s got a really happy ending (laughs)!  The libretto is in English, so hopefully you’ll be able to understand us as we sing, so you don’t need to necessarily familiarize yourself with the story before going in.  Be prepared for some very serious subject matter.  It’s not a show that shies away from talking about power and the abuse of power over the powerless, and maybe you want to go renew your license and wait in line at the DMV BEFORE seeing the show, so you don’t have to wait in line and have a similar Consulate experience afterward.  I’m fabulous in the show, so if you see the show for no other reason, see if for that (laughs).  It’s a really great cast!

Buffy:  There are some obvious things to listen for – the trio is one of them, the “Papers” aria that Magda sings is huge, it’s something that everybody in the cast looks forward to hearing, but there’s a lot of really cool ensemble singing. I love the ensemble at the end of the first act – heart-breaking. If you pay close attention, you’ll hear someone take a line, like in this trio – (sings) “Now, O lips say goodbye, the words must be said, but the heart must not heed…” that ends up being repeated throughout the entire opera in some form or another. You’ll hear these little motifs throughout the whole thing, so I would say, if you could, try to listen to some of the music, just listen through once and you’ll begin to pick up on these themes. Then your ear will be trained to recognize some of these musical ideas that you might not get in a first hearing.  So that’s really great, and I also think the storytelling through the orchestra is pretty awesome. The instrumental texture Menotti brings to this work is amazing, whether it is the alliterative, like having the orchestra sound like a weary heartbeat or glass breaking, or through the orchestral call and answers to the singers. The weird waltz is also interesting and fun. It will remind you of movie music. It’s a very cinematic score (in the best sense), and I think it was meant to be that way since it was written as a “musical play” – to be a truly theatrical work. I kind of get the feeling that he intended this to be produced for TV and it eventually was for Telemeter Theater. So this should be very reminiscent of cinema, it’s just we’re singing it the whole time.

Kirk:  It’s not what I would consider a tonal work.  It’s a-tonal, but not in the sense of serialism.  It has its own harmonic structure in many places.  There are sections of quintal and quartal harmonies, and complex rhythm structures, and things that you’re not going to hear from Italian opera, or even Wagnerian musical dramas, so it has a much more modern language, but that serves to accent very well the dramatic accent of the story.  It’s all about drama from one moment to another, and you can use all those elements that aren’t bound to an older world sense of tonality and orchestration to emphasize the moments in a dramatic way that you wouldn’t get from your typical operatic fare.  There ARE certainly beautiful melodic moments, but they are set off by many highly dramatic and musically violent moments.

OSB: Thank you all for sharing your insights into this piece!  We are all excited to for this performance!

The Consul will be performed at the Granada Theatre on Friday, April 25 at 7:30pm and Sunday, April 27 at 2:30pm.  For tickets or more information, please visit:, or call: 805.899.2222.

In 1950 Gian Carlo Menotti was inspired to write The Consul by the real-life tragedy of a woman who killed herself on Ellis Island when she was refused entry to the United States. Although the opera grew out of a specific historic situation, when the large number of people seeking to emigrate from Eastern Bloc countries was larger than the West was prepared to welcome, the underlying situation hasn’t changed; for many of today’s immigrants, the stakes are just as high.

Last month, the Seattle Opera interviewed Michelle Muri and Robert Gibbs from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to discuss this opera and the issues it dramatizes so powerfully. We would like to share that interview with you.

Seattle Opera (SO): Why is this Cold War-era work relevant today?

Robert: It illustrates an issue that continues to this day: people at risk, generally because of human rights abuses, struggling to find a safe place to live.

Michelle: Immigration issues are really human rights issues. Generally, 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.

SO: This opera explores the human impact of immigration-bureaucracy on a family. Do you regularly see that in your work?

Robert & Michelle: Absolutely.

Michelle: It’s hard to put a face on deportation, especially we you read a statistic such as “2 million people were deported over the last five years.” What that means is, families are being ripped apart. You’re suddenly missing your father one day, your brother, and you’ll never see him again. A mother drops her kid off at school, but on the way out she’s pulled over and sent to a detention center and ends up getting deported.

Robert: Most immigrant families are mixed families. Say a guy is here on a student visa, marries a U.S. citizen and they have two kids; well, if he overstays his visa he’ll be deported, but Mom and the kids stay here—they’re U.S. citizens. What are they supposed to do, go with Dad to some country where they don’t speak the language?

SO: I wonder whether that’s even more complicated now, in Washington, with same-sex marriage, where a marriage might not be recognized back in the other country.

Robert: You can apply for asylum based on same-sex marriage. If you say, “I will be persecuted back in Uzbekistan, or wherever, because I am gay and have a same-sex partner,” you would have the potential of seeking asylum. But for that you’d have had to enter the U.S. legally, of course.

SO: Can you clarify exactly what’s happening, legally, when Magda Sorel, our central character in The Consul, goes to the consulate hoping to get a visa? Is she seeking asylum from the government that’s persecuting her?

Robert: No, technically, she would be seeking refugee status. You apply for refugee status from abroad, from a consulate. For asylum, you apply from within the U.S. But it’s difficult to get refugee status because there’s a quota, and the allocations are very political. Sometimes, those who can’t get refugee status try to get a visitor visa, come here, and then seek asylum.

SO: In the opera, the consulate is full of filing cabinets and papers—“Papers! Papers! Papers!” the central character sings, when she is really losing it. Has immigration bureaucracy changed much for the digital age?

Robert: Yes and no. Nowadays, all sorts of governmental and private sector records are accessible. When you seek to cross the border into the U.S., the officer who’s interviewing you can see all this stuff on the screen, collected from all sorts of data streams. The same kind of information is available to the consulates, when they’re deciding who gets a visa.

And yet, if you go to Ellis Island National Monument, one of the things on display is an immigration court from a hundred years ago. As someone who goes to immigration courts today, the one on Ellis Island feels just the same: there are judges and lawyers, immigrants who have to negotiate all this bureaucracy, even a sign that reads: “Immigrants provided representation by Hebrew Immigration Services,” or “Church World Services,” or other nonprofit organizations that offered immigrants legal services.

SO: And today…that’s Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. You guys.

Michelle: Yes. Organizations such as NWIRP exist because there’s no access to a public defender in this type of law.

Robert: Well, it’s just starting, now, in a limited way, under the Obama administration. Thanks to the work of NWIRP and partners, if you’re mentally incompetent, then the court will appoint counsel for you. But anybody else either has to pay for a lawyer, or get a foundation- or donor-funded non-profit to come and represent them.

SO: What are the most important issues connected with immigration currently under debate?

Robert: One of the big questions is the scope of the deportations going on now. The administration has deported two million people in the last few years. That’s a very high number. Even though they’re making efforts to try to target their deportations at people who have serious criminal records, inevitably they’re sweeping up people who have spouses or kids here. And 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, but we really need Congress to step up to the plate and do something about it.

SO: Is it very difficult for a person to get here in the first place?

Robert: Post-9/11, the consulates are understandably nervous about letting somebody in who might do harm to this country and its people. They have a whole list of “grounds for inadmissibility,” and they screen applicants accordingly. But the statute provides an ambiguous statement about anybody who’s provided any “material support” to terrorism. But that could mean, if a terrorist said, “I want a sandwich,” and you give him a sandwich because he’s got a gun pointed at you—that’s material support, right there! The administration has tried to dial that back, but that’s been slow in coming and it remains to be seen how that plays out in the implementation. Consulates have a huge amount of discretion in their decision-making; they only have a couple minutes to make a decision, to evaluate your statement that you’re only entering the U.S. to go to school for a year and then you promise to go back to Ukraine.

Michelle: There are also barriers in terms of how people arrive here physically. At Northwest Immigrant Rights Project we have a powerful story about a man named Muktar, from Somalia.

When Muktar was in his early teens, he watched while rebel groups killed his three brothers, an uncle, and his father. But he was able to escape to Kenya where he lived for a period of time but was later threatened with deportation back to Somalia. He ended up connecting with 40 other young men. From Somalia they somehow made it to South Africa. They got on a plane to Cuba; made it from Cuba to Brazil; from Brazil all the way through South America to Central America, then all the way up through Mexico. People lost their lives, they lost limbs on the trains; but Muktar made it to the border of Texas, hoping to enter the United States. And there the U.S. detained him and put him in deportation proceedings. He was flown to Tacoma, where there’s a large immigration detention center with extra beds. And there he stayed, for six months, seeking help, fighting to stay in the United States. That’s where he found our organization, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He was able to interpret for a lot of his friends, and many of them were granted asylum, but not everybody. The situations that we see today are in many ways just as dramatic as the situation in the opera.

SO: Are there other fictional works (movies, novels, operas, etc.) you’d recommend that concern immigration?

Michelle: My favorite is Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat. She’s a Haitian writer, and here she tells a story—literary nonfiction—about her uncle, a pastor from Haiti who ended up in a detention center in Florida, where he died because they would not allow him access to his medication.

SO: I’ve often seen movies at Seattle International Film Festival, contemporary stories about people trying to immigrate—legally, like the story in the opera, or illegally.

Robert: Yes, because of the strictures of immigration laws, smugglers can make a living helping people get across. That’s a huge business today. That’s one of the untold stories. By not pursuing comprehensive reform, because of the lack of a legal mechanism for people to emigrate here, there’s big business for smugglers. On the Mexican border, it ends up being more business for drug traffickers. “Hey, we can smuggle drugs, we can smuggle people.” They have to know the right people on the border, what days they’re working, when their shift change is. We’re empowering that group of people by not having a legitimate mechanism that works.

SO: Interesting…when I watch The Consul, I sometimes wish Magda, the central character, weren’t so careful about following the rules…I think the audience would understand if at some point she decided to take the law into her own hands!

Robert: Many waves of immigration to the U.S. didn’t proceed entirely legally. There was a whole tradition, for instance, with Chinese immigrants posing as sons of people who had already entered the U.S.. They weren’t really their sons, their documents were phony; but there was an amnesty decades later: “OK, we’ll wipe the books and give everybody legal status,” because that way they aren’t constantly looking over their shoulder, or reluctant to develop a commitment to living in a new society.

SO: Michelle, you already started to answer this question, when you said, “It’s hard to put a human face on 2 million people being deported.” This opera makes a powerful plea against human beings getting reduced to numbers. But what’s the alternative? What would you say to The Consul’s poor Secretary, whose life, it turns out, is constant torture because of all the people she feels powerless to help?

Michelle: At Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, when we are interacting with the public we often hear from people who say some version of: “I totally disagree with you! Deport everybody! Except for my neighbor. My neighbors are the nicest people you’ll ever meet…is there any way you can help them?” This is the problem. We must get to know our neighbors. We must know each other. That’s the only way we can really have the empathy necessary to deal effectively with issues like immigration.

Robert: It’s useful for people to remember our entire history of immigration. Step back from the current situation and say: “Wait a minute, how did my ancestors get here? Should they have been able to come?”

Opera Santa Barbara sends our thanks to Jonathan Dean from Seattle Opera, Michelle Muri, Development Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and Robert Gibbs, Founder of NWIRP and Attorney with Gibbs Houston Pauw, for offering their perspectives on this complicated topic.


Thursday, April 24, 6:00 pm, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street

Julie Adams, soprano and Cathy Miller, pianist will grace the galleries at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for this season’s final Pop Up Opera performance.  Ms. Adams (a Music Academy of the West alum) was just named the 2014 winner of the very prestigious Metropolitan Opera, National Council Auditions Competition; she is a California native, and is thrilled to have been awarded such an honor.  As a tribute to living American artist Michelle Stuart this program will offer works from purely American composers, which will include the familiar tunes of George Gershwin, and a modern selection from Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.  This concert promises to be part of the grand finale to the Opera Santa Barbara Season. This performance is offered free to the general public.