Jonathan Dove’s Flight is loosely based on the story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who, when trying to immigrate to Great Britain, lost his papers and was stranded in Charles de Gaulle airport for 18 years. When learning of this story, Dove sensed an almost mythical quality in this man:
“A man trapped between two worlds, living in a kind of limbo. It made us think about what an extraordinary place an airport is, how full of stories, hopes and dreams. We wondered what kind of people the refugee might have met, and how he might have tried to enlist their help. “
Airports often make us think of the hassles checking our bags, going through security, and securing that ever important seat closest to the gate, yet we forget how extraordinary airports can be, acting as reflection or microcosm of the world they connect. Think of that moment of seeing someone step out of the gate. For a moment, we forget all the anger, mistrust, and unhappiness we may encounter from day to day.
In our story, the Refugee acts as the great watcher. After stowing away in the wheel well of an airplane, he is now stranded in an airport spending his day scavenging for food, asking for money from passengers, and avoiding the authorities. Despite the labors of day to day survival, his music and text open the opera with an enthusiasm for the airport’s fantastical nature. He meets a series of three couples, Bill and Tina, Minsk Man and Minsk Woman, and Steward and Stewardess. He observes their relationship and personal struggles, then elicits them for help. Also observing the travelers’ comings and goings is the Controller, an embodiment of the airport, who sits cynically in her high tower, sending planes into the air, judging passengers, and arguing with the Refugee, for whose wellbeing she secretly feels responsible.
It is important to acknowledge that Flight was written in a pre-9-11 world. The audience will not see or hear mention of police dogs, “See something, say something,” or not so random security checks. It is a return to a time where a family could wait for their love ones at the terminal gate or a person could disappear into anonymity. This allows the opera to focus on socioeconomic class as a larger theme alongside the those of immigration and refugee status. The couples reflect the side of society who so engrossed in their personal problems, they fail to acknowledge those less fortunate. Think of how we may pat ourselves on the back for giving a dollar to a homeless person, while not acknowledging the wider issues related to homeless. The couples in the opera don’t know how to help the Refugee and in turn, ignore him. However, Flight reminds us of our possibility for humanity. They rally around the Refugee when the Immigration Officer attempts to arrest him. Finally, the Refugee tell the story of how he and his brother stowed away in the wheel wells of an airplane. Somehow surviving the extreme cold of the flight, he remains at the airport, waiting for his brother who has yet to arrive and who we later learn did not survive the flight. However, for the couples in this show, their lives move on and the Refugee continues his exile in the airport with an even more uncertain future. What this production hopes to do by the final curtain drop is ask the audience, “what can you do?”
I want to emphasize that despite the heavy themes in this opera (immigration, refugee status, homelessness, marital unrest) this show is a comedy. We have silly scenarios where flirtation goes wrong; a woman fakes going into labor and suddenly realizes she is actually going into labor; a married couple hoping to re-spark their marriage, conga in the airport in anticipation of their tropical holiday. Even the Controllers cynicism is humorous at times.
This is a revival of a 2017 production by Opera Parallèle; a company with a reputation of successfully integrating video projection into their story telling. The set is representative of the everyday airport gate, yet the backdrop of the set is a rear projection screen onto which media is projected. Video provides moments to transport the characters and audience out of realism and into the inner thoughts of each character, the breath-taking experience of an airplane taking flight, startling flashes of lighting and the resulting frustrations of flight delays. Imagine seeing a storm building through the giant terminal window as the airport flight/departure screens flash “delayed.” Props also play an important role in reminding us of the airport experience – Cinnabon boxes, Starbucks cups, the uncomfortable airport benches, you name it, carryon bags, you name it. We aim to recreate the airport experience to invoke the audience’s sense of empathy.
Flight is an excellent match for the Twin Cities, who support the nation’s largest Somali and Hmong communities. When I directed The Consul for Arbeit Opera Theatre last fall, we worked closely with Advocates for Human Rights in downtown Minneapolis, LEAP high school, and the Wellstone Center in Saint Paul. Not only did Arbeit Opera Theatre want to present a remarkable work, but also wanted to highlight the opera’s social relevance. It was important for the production to highlight the social relevance of Menotti’s opera about government apathy towards refugees and to do so from an honest and dramaturgical point of view. From Advocates for Human Rights we heard remarkable stories of what families have survived and what they have been through in order to come to the United States. With LEAP High School, we introduced students to theatre games and opera, working closely with them that many attended our production and participated in our talk backs. Students told us how they saw themselves, family, or people they know in the struggles of Magda Sorrell and the people of the consulate’s waiting room. For many of them, this was their first experience in opera. They saw that it wasn’t just an artform for the rich and hopefully will want to hear more.
In my experience, Minnesota Opera has not shied away from social justice opera as a genre. For example, last year Project Opera and I presented Brundibàr, using the opera’s themes and historical background to comment on the humanitarian crisis at the southern US border. Flight could provide an opportunity for Minnesota Opera to reach out to immigrant and refugee communities in the twin cities, which are greatly underrepresented in opera audiences. I can imagine LEAP or Wellstone would welcome Minnesota Opera’s education outreach to their classes. When Arbeit Opera invited students to attend performances for free, many carpooled together to attend. An invitation to the final dress of Flight may invoke a similar response. This production provides an opportunity to show the social relevance of opera and how Minnesota Opera is dedicated to inclusivity in its audiences, outreach, and season planning.
— David Radamés Toro, Reprisal Stage Director
 a non-profit organization who works closely with immigrant communities to “investigate and expose human rights violations, represent immigrants and refugees seeking asylum, train and assist groups that protect human rights, engage the public, policy-makers, and children; push for legal reform; and advocate for sound policy.” ~ http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/about_us
 An Alternative Learning Center (ALC) high school and part of the St. Paul Public Schools currently serving 425 English language learner immigrant and refugee students. https://www.spps.org/Domain/46
 This genre is on the rise in 21st century American Opera. Ex: Dead Man Walking, Blind Justice¸ A New Kind of Fallout, As One, etc..