The Merry Widow, March 2009, David Bazemore Photo
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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. 


Opera SB Patron Services Associate Malena Jones sat down with Maestro Francesco Milioto to talk about Falstaff, which he calls “a complete joy ride from the beginning to the end… be ready for high-paced music, fun, scheming…”

Malena Jones (MJ): Falstaff is such an ensemble piece, and you’re responsible not only for the singers, but also for the orchestra! How do you keep it all together?

1506555_722943821079922_73820856_nFrancesco Milioto (FM): Good communication, and good physical communication with my arms, eyes, and face, and my body language. Some people say it’s good baton technique, but it has to go beyond that. You have to physically engage more than everyone’s sense of sight. You have to be able to make them feel something and want to do something, and want to play a certain way at a certain time. It’s a matter of being physically more musical than just your right arm or your left arm, and keeping your eyes up, looking at the singers, and being ahead with your communication – with both the stage and the pit, and quickly using your eyes and your ears to adjust anything that might be going astray – or about to go astray. It helps to not only keep my brain a little bit ahead of the music, but also to see things and understand and anticipate things, and be as helpful as I can. I try to be a combination of physically showing the music, and staying in and out of people’s way as they need me. I don’t try to impose myself on them, but I try to create and be as organically in the situation as I can.

MJ: Are there any motivic elements that mirror the characters in Falstaff? For example, is there a theme we might hear when Falstaff enters the room, or when Nannetta and Fenton are together?

FM: There aren’t any leitmotifs for specific people, but you do have, with Nannetta and Fenton, the little tag that they sing at the ends of the duets, which happens again in the third act, and with Quickly’s “reverenza”. With Falstaff I think you have a type of music that happens in each of the situations. There’s a robustness to his music that shows his character, and what he wants and needs to do. It’s more about situational music, being careful with the setting of the text and creating the atmosphere.

MJ: What do you think makes this piece distinctly Verdian?

FM: Wow. That is a huge question, because Verdi didn’t write a lot of comedies, and this piece came many many years after a lot of the things that we know – and 5 or 6 years after Otello, so what makes this piece distinctly Verdi – there are so many new things in it that Verdi does. This piece is at a completely different level of combining music and word. You almost don’t notice that the music it there, because there are little arias for Fenton, and a little one for Nannetta as the nymph (that also has chorus and some other action), but it’s not a spot-on “aria.” There are no other spots in the opera that actually stop. It goes beyond what he used to do, and what I would say that’s similar about it is that he uses a lot of the same musical language. He uses the same rhythmical language. It’s not like it’s not recognizably Verdi anymore, it’s just Verdi on a higher level in the more subtle things, like structure and combinations of tempi, and trying to keep the same inner-rhythmic pulse. I think he goes beyond the music and into the audiences’ memory of which tempos and beats and feelings work. This is similar to the way Shakespearian actors do work. They memorize things using rhythms, and the certain flow of the way the lines need to go – Verdi really bonded that together with the music that he created for this score, and to me it simply is one of the greatest pieces. It works from beginning to end, and not only has a complete structure, but also an inside structure that goes beyond words and music to convey physical beats that you understand, that are also associated with the characters and that translate into other situations seamlessly. This is a new and completely fantastic ending of an operatic career.

MJ: That sort of goes along with my next question, which is – are there any references to Verdi’s previous works, such as Otello?

FM: I think that the closest thing to this piece is definitely Otello. The use of grace notes, trilling, the use of music that we might know associated with Iago, and associated with some jealousy that obviously has importance here, but I think the closest opera to Falstaff would be Otello. In Otello you have arias, duets, and it’s more in the standard style of Verdi, but in this piece it’s incredible how he translates the music that you would associate with a type of character or a type of situation into this comical situation…it gives you a turnaround in your ear, and your eye when you combine the two things, and that for me is probably the most important thing.

MJ: What should we listen for with this opera?

FM: You should listen to the words and the situation, and you should treat this opera like a play. You should come ready to use your eyes as much as your ears, because there’s not really a time for you to stop and enjoy what’s going to happen next. Come and treat this like a musical play, or a hybrid of something that you’d see at straight theater, compared to a musical, compared to an opera. It’s not the type of piece where you’re going to stop for applause or an encore. It’s a complete joy ride from the beginning to the end, and you have to be ready for high-paced music, fun, scheming, and use your eyes and ears to figure it out, and enjoy it as it happens. Let it roll with you to the end!

MJ: What can you tell us about the fugue at the end?

FM: The fugue at the end is probably one of the hardest things in operatic ensemble writing that I’ve come across in my career. There are a few spots in Mozart where you get some larger ensembles, but this is a nod to the likes of Bach, and Verdi does it brilliantly here. It’s really one of the most complicated places for the vocal ensemble – it’s not as difficult for the orchestra. Trying to balance all of the voices and trying to make it sound like a fugue so that you create the sound you would have if you had someone at the piano, or an orchestral fugue. You want to hear every entrance clearly; you want to hear every theme. You want to hear all of the variations of the themes, and you want to hear the layering of what the composer does with fragments of the theme, parts of the theme, rhythms of the theme, words of the theme. Verdi uses everything, and turns it upside-down and backwards. It’s difficult, after having been singing for an hour and 50 minutes of singing to end on a fugue! It’s hard to build up the energy, focus, and intensity to do that. For me it’s a matter of a different kind of focus at the end, and I’m such a pianist and instrumentalist that I really do insist on the singers using the dynamics that help us create what we need to actually make it a vocal fugue, and that’s what crazy and important about it.

MJ: Thank you very much for your insights – it’s made me so much more excited to see (and hear) this opera again!

2014 Party Book!

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

2 Opera Dinner Party 3

Opera Santa Barbara is now selling spaces for our second annual Party Book of exclusive and fun events!

Each party has a limited number of spaces, and spaces are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Following are the parties being offered:

March 2: Academy Awards Party ($175 per person)

April 6: Hungarian Opera Dinner Party (Sold Out)

April 28: Opera in Historic Places: The Mural Room ($125 per person)

May 15: Opera Jeopardy! ($100 per person)

May 18: The Art of Sushi at Pagoda House ($150 per person)

June 22: Karaoke at the Salt Caves ($100 per person)

July 12: High Tea at the Tea Gardens ($135 per person)

August 24: Opera in Fine Homes featuring Menotti’s The Telephone ($150 per person)

September 27: Historic Walking Tour ($110 per person)

December 21: Christmas Lights Trolley Tour ($85 per person)

To purchase tickets, call Opera Santa Barbara at 805.898.3890.

CLICK HERE to download a PDF of the Party Book!

April Noontime Concerts!

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The final free noontime concerts of our season will return in April. These concerts are offered FREE to the public, and feature the talented members of our Studio Artists Program. Concerts feature a diverse repertoire of popular and lesser-known operatic offerings, all accompanied by piano.

April concerts will be held on Thursdays April 3, 10 and 17 in the Faulkner Gallery at the Santa Barbara Public Library, 40 E. Anapamu Street, Santa Barbara.

The start time is 12:00 noon.