Airports are full of people with dreams, each with a story to tell. I have been trying to remember how long ago it was when you could check in your bag and simply walk onto a plane, before the arrival of massive security halls, ever-smaller bag sizers and all the features that make today’s airline travel a trial. Jonathan Dove in his witty, thought-provoking opera Flight, written 20 years ago when skies were less crowded and before the twin tower attack, traps an unlucky group of travellers and staff in an airport lounge overnight as a huge electrical storm grounds all flights. Surprising alliances are made and the opera finds itself addressing one of today’s international issues.

James Laing (The Refugee) and the cast of <i>Flight</i> © James Glossop
James Laing (The Refugee) and the cast of Flight
© James Glossop

Stranding a group of people is a popular dramatic device, and I was struck by similarities to Menotti’s The Consul where one person, Menotti’s Secretary and Dove’s Controller prevent characters from leaving a place they no longer want to be, with babies appearing and threats from officials in both operas as stories unfold. That said, Flight is a very fine accessible modern opera, this production first seen at Opera Holland Park in 2015 travelling to Scottish Opera with three original cast members. Musically, there is a mix of modern minimalist influences with series of driving looped sequences, lively Latin-American cross-rhythms with many lyrical and astonishingly beautiful, moving moments. Silver-stringed harp, bright celesta and energetic percussion provided much variety adding edge and drama. Scottish Opera’s orchestra under Stuart Stratford was on top form, ablaze with energy and dynamism, sounding like they were thoroughly enjoying Dove’s musical challenges from creating the drama of a plane taking off to onstage childbirth.

Andrew Riley’s stretched Nissan hut semi-circular airport design with utilitarian airport seating, overseen by the Controller’s high platform was simple and effective. Three sets of lift doors allowed people to come and go, the backdrop a canvass for Jack Henry James’ subtle and effective video projections of lightning storms or clearing blue skies, even a huge plane taxiing towards us.

The passengers were people we might meet every day: Bill and Tina off on holiday to revitalise their marriage, Minskman and pregnant Minskwoman heading to a diplomatic life in newly independent Belarus, and an Older Woman waiting for her young lover to arrive. A besotted Steward and Stewardess provide much amusement and a Refugee without papers hides from an Immigration Officer doing his rounds. Overseeing everything is the Flight Controller, perhaps the most enigmatic character of all, almost god-like on her high platform as she issues her orders, or speaks frantically on the phone checking her bank of screens.

Jennifer France (The Controller) © James Glossop
Jennifer France (The Controller)
© James Glossop

The cast worked well together in ensemble giving a terrific performance under Stephen Barlow’s direction and although storylines were stereotypical, there were plenty of surprises and laugh-out-loud moments, even a patter song. Individually, the singing was very fine, Peter Auty and Stephanie Corley as Bill and Tina, playfully tied to a marriage manual but looking for something else, were both in great voice. While Older Woman, Marie McLaughlin’s young lover never arrived, Stewardess and Steward Sioned Gwen Davies and Jonathan McGovern shed their uniforms and corporate smiles, getting sexually athletic in the lifts and fuelling the long night from the duty-free trolley. McGovern and Auty also had much fun with those naughty wrong trousers in the final act.

Stephen Gadd, the big voiced Minskman, headed off alone leaving his vacillating pregnant wife Minskwoman behind, but flew back again to collect her and their newly arrived infant in the final act. Victoria Simmonds gave a magnificent performance, a woman getting to grips with impending motherhood as well as moving to a different country, her beautiful suitcase aria illustrating the transition, a genuine highlight.

Joining Simmonds from the Opera Holland Park’s cast were Jennifer France as the Controller and countertenor James Laing as the Refugee, both giving outstanding performances. France has a knack of not only hitting Dove’s stratospheric high notes, but making them sound ethereally beautiful. An inspiration for Flight was the true story of Iranian refugee Mehran Karime Nasseri who lived in Charles de Gaulle Airport from 1988-2006, yet suddenly in 2018 refugees and how we treat them is an uncomfortable and pressing issue. Laing’s soft countertenor was perfect to reflect his gentle character, quietly asking for money for food and for help evading Dingle Yandell’s loud, authoritarian Immigration Officer. He individually offers his fellow passengers new age ‘magic stones’ and the women are shamefully brutal to him in return. His is the last story to be told, truly shocking, providing a lasting haunting astral image, eclipsing the everyday stories of airport folk in this opera, getting to move on as the skies clear, the bright Controller overjoyed to be getting people, the ones with jobs and tickets, back on the move. 

****1