Gian Carlo Menotti wrote The Consul, his first full-length opera in 1950 in response to stories he heard, news reports and personal encounters with refugees fleeing Europe after World War II. Two stories, taken from the pages of the New York Times, moved him deeply. One involved a group of Jewish refugees who became trapped on a bridge between Austria and Hungary. Based loosely on this article, Menotti wrote a screenplay for MGM. His story involved refugees trying to flee Austria to Hungary, during WWII. They didn’t have passports or papers and ended up trapped for a week on a bridge between the two countries. Neither Austria nor Hungary would admit them. But the subject was deemed too depressing for audiences, looking to forget the great tragedies of the war. And the film was never made.

Menotti with his partner, composer Samuel Barber

The other involved the tragic story of a Polish immigrant who hanged herself on Ellis Island after being denied entry to the US. The utter despair felt by this immigrant in particular, who has risked and lost everything… I feel that this fuelled so much of the emotion of this work. On a personal level, I read that Menotti once met an old Italian woman on a plane from Italy to New York. Her papers were not in order and no one could understand her explanations, spoken with a strange accent. Menotti himself did all he could to assist her with dealing with the authorities, but to no avail. No doubt she was the inspiration for the role of the Foreign Woman in The Consul.

The Consul was set in Menotti’s here and now in an unidentified European country. Magda Sorrel’s husband is fleeing the secret police, and needs a visa for the family to leave the country. He has to cross the border to escape the secret police. In the Consulate waiting room, the reality of the indifferent bureaucracy and lack of empathy hits Magda. The room is full of characters with awful stories, who cling to hope that their visa will be granted. The Consul’s secretary espouses the department line “Your name is a number, your story’s a case, you need a request – your hopes will be filed – come back next week.” As time passes, and Magda cannot make her case heard, her mother-in-law and baby die, her husband is captured, as she takes what she sees as the only path left.

Tragically Menotti would find much resonance in the headlines of today’s papers. The story of The Consul has never been more relevant. Just last month the UN’s human rights chief attacked Europe’s “chilling indifference” to refugees. 2017 saw record deaths and record numbers of displaced people.

Virginia Zeani as Magda Sorrell in the orginal production

The rise of nationalism, escalations in border control and the treatment of refugees as “swarms” rather than humans…. Magda’s aria in Act II responds to all of this as she expresses sorrow at the state of the world and anger that free people watch as innocents die. She finishes with the powerful assertion, “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.”

It has been suggested by some that the callous and indifferent bureaucracy presented in The Consul, and its refusal to treat like human beings the people desperately seeking visas, is pointedly and disturbingly reminiscent of Australia’s refugee policy. Indeed, Julian Burnside recently commented on the impact this production had on him. “Gertrude Opera’s moving and beautifully sung production of The Consul illustrates the soul-destroying denial of human rights by political systems and bureaucracies. It resonated with me at a deep emotional level,” he said.

The forces that prevent people from providing documentation required by governments for immigration remain, and are not confined to economic status or ‘legitimacy’. The desperation of individuals and families who flee their homes, friends, extended family to seek asylum are collectively demonised, particularly if they travel by boat. Now more than ever this story needs to be told.

The original production ran for eight months on Broadway, so clearly the story of a young family seeking freedom from oppression had great resonance with audiences, especially in the US (a country that took in more than a million refugees from war torn Europe between 1941 to 1950). The opera is a remarkably beautiful, albeit harrowing, piece. The characters are finely crafted for singing actors, and there is a tug at the heart-strings every couple of minutes. The story is familiar and invites contemplation – what would we do to protect our family, and fight for our freedom?

Linda Thompson in Gertude Opera’s production

Entertainment in homes was really only just taking off in the 1950s and the “opera-as-theatre” scene was in its hey-day, with the ‘new’ avenue for opera and opera singers through television. The show received rave reviews and fear of missing out drove people into the theatres. Radio and TV opera was popular – Menotti wrote Amahl and The Night Visitors for TV – but people looked more readily to theatres for their leisure, entertainment and intellectual stimulation. Back then, they were in the habit of going out in search of stories of other lives, cultures, experiences. Not sitting on their couch with multiple screens!

Nowadays, quality opera is expensive. So much of what goes into the preparation is unseen and unacknowledged. Singers prepare their roles in their own time, practice, pay for lessons, research, memorise. The idea that opera singers have a glamorous, well-paid career is a fallacy! Although we love to put on a gown and jewels as much as audiences love to see them, much of opera is just hard work behind the scenes. It is interesting to note that Menotti’s motivations in choosing his subjects were to work against what Samuel Barber (his partner) had called “the after-dinner mint of the rich”.  Menotti wrote opera in order that art should become part of society – “a much needed member of society, rather than just an ornament”.

This production of is essentially on a shoestring. The late Peter Corrigan (who designed our set) was a fierce supporter of our focus on the telling of stories theatrically – presenting a carefully considered and evocative stage design that belies the amount spent. The piece lends itself to an intimate, chamber treatment, but the number of people involved is still significant. Professionals, not just singers and musicians, but creative and production teams, giving some of their time voluntarily so that this story might be told. It is important to note that we have no government funding for our Studio productions. I think it is significant that when I was applying for funding with Barrie Kosky in the 1990s, the typical grant for a one off project basis was $10,000. This has not changed in more than 20 years. But I remember a $10,000 grant went a long way back then!

Blake Bowden as the magician Nika Magadoff in Gertrude Opera’s production

The Consul has a truly great score. The ensemble writing is exquisite and lush – even Puccini-esque  – in the trio in Act 1, and the sextet In Endless Waiting Rooms. And of course, the almost Wagnerian aria To this weve come, or what is known as the ‘Papers Aria’, which is a spectacularly composed piece – so full of human truths and injustice it is heartbreaking, and the voice gets to soar.

The challenge for me singing the central role of Magda is retaining enough emotional distance from the situation to be able to sing. There are moments where the frustration, distress, heartbreak are so perfectly expressed musically, that it is difficult to not just sit down and weep. Actually, there are times in rehearsal when the tears flow, which is good, because there is an emotional line that cannot be crossed in performance or the throat will just not function. The audience may well weep, but the soprano cannot!

Getrude Opera presents The Consul at 130 Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne from May 29 – June 2