If asked to make a list of candidates for site-specific opera, my first attempt probably wouldn’t have included Jonathan Dove and April de AngelisFlight, set in the airside section of an airport – not least for the nasty architecture in most airports, their notoriously terrible acoustics and the general difficulty of access. But these are strange times, in which opera is of necessity being delivered through film, and having planned a production of Flight before the pandemic, Seattle Opera hit upon the ingenious idea of filming the opera at the city’s Museum of Flight, situated on the premises at Boeing Field (officially “King County International Airport”) and fully equipped with a control tower, runway, official looking airport lounge areas and many aeroplanes.

Sharleen Joynt (Controller)
© Kyle Seago (video still)

As luck would have it, Flight is a particularly appropriate work for the pandemic, based as it is on would-be travellers stranded in place, unable to go to the location of their dreams. There’s no chorus (which avoids major Covid-safety issues), but it’s a large scale work in three acts with ten solo roles (of which only one, the Immigration Controller, is minor, putting in an important appearance only at the end).

Randall Scotting (Refugee), Damien Geter (Immigration Officer)
© Philip Newton

Stage director Brian Staufenbiel and video director Kyle Seago do an exceptional job of delivering the narrative. Throughout the opera, camera shots are interestingly chosen and beautifully crafted. Costume designer Liesl Alice Gatcheco makes a notable contribution to painting each character vividly – most notably the dazzling scarlet uniform of the Stewardess and the fashion disaster that is the Older Woman. We know we’re in for an acting treat when we see Sharleen Joynt’s overpoweringly supercilious, impeccably turned out Controller, prowling her control tower and pulling the strings; we see her arched eyebrows and penetrating stare in close-up as she delivers stratospheric coloratura. Sheltering amidst the lobbies and passageways is Randall Scotting as an earnest Refugee, alternately pleading and manipulating, looking somewhat too well groomed for his role but otherwise utterly credible.

Aubrey Allcock (Minskman), Karin Mushegain (Minskwoman)
© Philip Newton

The opera starts by giving five travellers their chance to come into the airport and tell us their hopes, fears and dreams, to which is added a side order of cynical professionalism from the high-libido Steward and Stewardess. The genius of Flight is that each character’s back story is vivid in itself: these are not stock characters and their tales are told with poignancy and wry humour (Flight was originally planned as a comedy and behaves as comedy for most of its duration until it goes very dark at the end). Their stories escalate as they start interacting with each other, and Staufenbiel shows an exceptional grip of how to make us sympathise with his characters while keeping the action moving at pace. The comedy is delivered with hilarity: watch out for the “wrong trousers” sequence in Act 3.

From left: Sarah Larsen, Joseph Lattanzi, Joshua Kohl, Karen Vuong
© Philip Newton

Dove’s music constantly shifts in style as the narrative proceeds, refined, prosaic or madcap as the occasion demands. There are snatches of Britten at his most lyrical, echoes of John Adams’ rhythmic propulsion when the pace of events speeds up. For this production, the soundtrack was recorded at Seattle Symphony’s Benaroya Hall, allowing a somewhat reduced version of the Seattle Opera Orchestra to spread out over the stage, with singers in the audience seats. I can’t fault conductor Viswa Subbaraman’s tempi or the energy and variety of the playing, but the recorded orchestral sound doesn’t come through quite as clearly or vividly as I would have liked. The singing, however, is uniformly excellent. Joynt’s soprano glitters and sparkles: if she goes a little brittle at the top, that can be forgiven, with the Controller’s role spending an awful lot of time in high C territory. Scotting has a lilt and a mellow smoothness to his countertenor voice that is particularly appealing, heartbreaking in the denouement scene where we learn the details of how the Refugee has come to be at the airport. Among fine performances in every role, I was particularly taken by Karin Mushegain’s Minskwoman as she ponders her regrets for the carefree life she is leaving for the entrapment of motherhood. The ensemble passages – particularly the nine voice comic ensemble which closes Act 1 – are brilliantly sung, with each individual voice clearly defined within the throng.

Before seeing this production, I was already of the view that Flight is a masterpiece. This film does the opera full justice: hats off to Seattle Opera for delivering it in such style. And if anyone thinks the plot is too fatuous and improbable, they should look up the name Mehran Karimi Nasseri, whose real-life story is at its heart – and in this case, truth is even stranger than fiction.

The opera was reviewed from the Seattle Opera video stream.
The stream can be viewed by season ticket holders now and by the public from April 23-25.