A modern, English-language opera about a woman fighting bureaucracy sounded like a painfully tedious proposition – too much like my real life. But I attended The Consul at Seattle Opera because I have season tickets.
A bleeding man bursts into a decaying apartment, forgetting to shut the door. Knocking over furniture he falls to the floor, calling his wife. She rushes into the kitchen, trailed by his mother. The secret police discovered their meeting place; one of their friends is dead. He has been followed. John Sorel drags himself up the fire escape while his wife washes his bloody hand print from the door frame seconds before men in trench coats enter without knocking.
The Consul turned out to be one of the most beautiful, powerful, and moving operas I have seen. Not only is it the answer to anyone who accuses opera of being frivolous or irrelevant, it is the antidote to the misogyny that poisons so much of the classical opera canon.
It is true that operas in English take some getting used to; throughout the first act I was distracted by the way the words fit the music and the supratitles. Sometimes they didn’t seem to fit very well. Opera in Italian will often take a phrase and play with it, celebrating the music with vowels. But English never has time for this. Syllables are shoehorned into musical phrases, often half-spoken, and seldom repeated. In the Consul, the saving grace of such direct, unmusical language was direct access to the sentiment. So often in operas, the ideas expressed are so silly it’s better to disguise them in foreign syllables. But the Consul is loaded with hollow-pointed poetry that explodes on impact. Knowing that I would never remember lines delivered so early in the evening, I almost tried to take notes on my phone in Act One. But I remembered my manners and thought the libretto must be available online. I couldn’t find it and now I’m appalled that a world so thoroughly documented doesn’t contain an online library of libretti.
The voice of Michael Todd Simpson’s John posed an obvious threat to any unjust regime; it was the voice of a national hero, a resistance leader turned head-of-state. But for the most part drama trumped music in the first act. It was only in the second act, with the Mother’s touching lullaby, that the music began to come forward. The music finally rises to match the power of the story in the centerpiece of the opera, the breathtaking “To This We’ve Come,” where Magda rages against the machine in soaring bel canto verse, flawlessly delivered by Marcy Stonikas.
To this we’ve come: that men withhold the world from men
No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea.
No home nor grave for him who dies on land.
To this we’ve come:
that man be born a stranger upon God’s earth,
that he be chosen without a chance for choice,
that he be hunted without the hope of refuge.
Everything that is wonderful about the Consul comes together in this aria. Although the opera opens with the charismatic dissident John Sorel, its protagonist is his quietly determined wife, Magda. When death and boredom begin to wear her down, the pounding refrain that has dominated her days in the consulate
What is your name? Magda Sorel.
Turns into a proto-feminist roar
What is your name? What is your name? What is your name?
This is my answer: My name is woman.
Waiting, waiting, waiting!
Waiting, waiting, waiting!
Oh, the day will come, I know,
when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains!
That day neither ink nor seal
shall cage our souls,
That day will come!
Opera is famous for its spectacle, its elaborate sets and costumes, but the Consul is set in a drab apartment and claustrophobic office. These bleak interiors, combined with Magda’s shabby housedress, serve to further ground the opera in reality. When Mr. Kofner, who visited the consulate yesterday and the day before and the day before was sent away because his photographs were not 3X3, the audience laughed. But I caught my breath. One of many setbacks we faced in the three and a half year paper trail of international adoption was retaking improperly formatted pictures. Even if you’ve never dealt with immigration, it is impossible to forget that the story of the Consul was very true to life when the opera was written in 1950, and impossible to overlook that it is equally realistic today; that even now, a stack of papers is all that stands between families and freedom, and not having a stack of papers can cost entire families their lives.
All the documents must be signed, seas go dry and suns grow cold but all the documents must be signed.