Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Thursday, Feb. 20; Saturday, Feb. 22; Friday, Feb. 28; and Sunday, March 1
Tickets: $29-$183 from the Royal McPherson box office (250-386-6121) or rmts.bc.ca
Jonathan Dove endeavours to see as many versions of Flight as possible, which might seem strange given that he wrote the opera more than 20 years ago.
The composer has his reasons. “Selfishly, I wrote a piece that I wanted to go see,” Dove said with a laugh, in a phone interview from the Chateau Victoria hotel. “And so I do so when I get the chance. I learn so much. Opera is the most collaborative medium, and every singer brings something new to the part, and every designer and director bring new angles to the storytelling. I learn a lot seeing it through other people’s eyes.”
Flight premièred in England in 1998, with a performance at the Glyndebourne Opera House. It became a critical hit after its official run began a year later, and toured several countries before making its North American debut in St. Louis in 2003, which — naturally — Dove attended. It was at this point that the Cambridge graduate felt the artistic urge to keep seeing new presentations of the work. “It was already very different,” he said.
In the 17 years since, Dove has attended numerous productions of Flight, which librettist April De Angelis based on the true story of a stateless Iranian man, Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived in a Paris airport for 18 years (the story became the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks).
Some versions of the opera, with its myriad storylines and romantic intersections, have adopted a mystical and dreamlike tone, while others played up the opera’s comedic side. Dove said he loves the variety of each interpretation.
“Different aspects of the piece come into the foreground at different times. What’s been the most surprising thing is realizing that the plight of refugees is more present now than when I wrote the piece. And that’s unusual for it to become actually more topical.”
Pacific Opera Victoria is presenting the Canadian première of Flight over two weekends, starting tonight. Dove will be in attendance for the Royal Theatre première, a production directed by Morris Panych and starring, among others, Ottawa-bred, New York-based soprano Sharleen Joynt and British countertenor William Towers, who plays the Refugee.
Joynt loves her role as a “stern, bad-ass” air-traffic controller who watches planes and tracks characters from atop a tower at the rear of the stage. It’s considered unusual for a contemporary opera to enjoy such immediate acclaim, Joynt said, but she is not surprised at its continued success, even though it is staged only sporadically in North America.
Joynt has been a big fan for more than 10 years, having caught on to Dove’s music for Flight when she was a student with Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Development Program.
“This has been a dream role of mine for a while now,” Joynt, 32, said by phone from a Victoria coffeeshop, during a break between rehearsals. “When I was in college, my coach said I should one day sing this role, because I have a very specific voice type — there are only so many roles I can do. I was so excited about it, so I went and bought the score. It has been sitting in my parents’ house, never opened, until I got this contract.”
Joynt comes to the role with a gust of star power at her back. Not every opera singer has her 2017 wedding covered in US Weekly, but Joynt clearly isn’t your average colouratura soprano.
She was a contestant on The Bachelor in 2014, and went far in the reality TV competition before eventually quitting the show. She blogs about the current season of The Bachelor for Flare magazine, one of her many high-profile pursuits.
She is often on the road, which made certain aspects of Flight familiar to Joint — such as passengers coming and going in rapid fashion.
“When I was younger, I wanted a career like [French opera icon] Natalie Dessay — I wanted to be travelling all over,” she said. “But the reality of the career is quite sobering and very difficult.”
Flight has a dark undertone amid all the comedy, and in recent years, has had even more of an impact.
In the years since the opera was written, prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the notion of a stateless refugee living amid the travellers has become something of an impossibility, amid heightened airport security.
Dove has enjoyed the shift in perspective by the audience. “Perhaps there isn’t quite the same sense of abandon and freedom that airports conjured up then. The refugee story is dark, and when [the Refugee] eventually tells us, right at the end of the opera, how he got there, it’s a painful story. I think an appealing quality of the opera is the way his story intersects with other stories. That is where the comedy comes up. It’s a little microcosm into which this outsider refugee comes.”
Various operas by Dove are regularly staged around the world, but Flight has had the biggest reach. It has been staged by 30 companies to date, “which is very unusual for a new opera,” Dove said. “On the one hand, it’s a fun and funny enjoyable night out. But it does include painful truths about our lives. And I think that combination has been appealing.
“It was a chance to show that opera isn’t only about gods and fairies and things long ago and far away, or people in wigs. It can be about modern life, which can potentially be operatic. That was something I was keen to show.”