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: 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 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: granadasb.org, or call: 805.899.2222.