Bronx Opera opens the 2019 season with The Consul

The Bronx Opera, an artistic gem just north of the island of Manhattan, within shouting distance of the Zoo and the Gardens, performs two operas in this their 52nd season: Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

OperaMetro (OM) was privileged to discuss the Menotti opera with the company’s General Manager Benjamin Spierman (BS), the production’s director Rod Gomez (RG), and soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley (M-HH), who sings Magda, the central role of the opera. Marina Harris, how sings Magda in the other two performances, called to say she will be delayed, so we proceed accordingly. It’s too cold to do a walk and talk, all are too busy getting ready for the performances, so no time to chat in person or by telephone…but emails work. The conversation below is edited to make it seem as if we’re hanging out together, enjoying the warmth of each other’s company, which would be a far far better alternative than strolling through the chilly, windy reality of today. Brrrr.

Mary-Hollis Hundley is Magda in  The Consul  on Opening Night

Mary-Hollis Hundley is Magda in The Consul on Opening Night

OM: Ben, congratulations on your new season!

BS: Many thanks. A pleasure to speak with you again.

OM: So The Consul and The Mikado this season. I know BxO tends to do operas connected by some common theme, partly for your wonderful wide community and educational outreach. But, as I see it, these two have in common only that they were both originally composed to a libretto in English and the titles start with The…am I missing something?

BS: A central part of both operas is unchecked power, which opens the door for the potentially arbitrary and destructive nature of totalitarianism. We chose the theme because it’s becoming increasingly relevant today, not just ‘back then,’ like in the governments of the 20th or 19th centuries, or the old days of absolute monarchs, emperors, and sun gods. In The Consul Madga seeks a visa to leave the country, wishing to join her husband, who has fled to avoid arrest for political disobedience. But the Secretary of the Consulate clearly stalls at filling her request due to the ongoing police investigation. At any moment her world could come violently crashing down around her and her loved ones.

OM: Ah! I get it! And so The Mikado, in this framework, is no different: to disobey the Mikado’s laws is death, however whimsical the laws may be and however trivial the disobedience is.

BS: Exactly.

OM: And as The Mikado evolves through the course of the evening, the new laws are uncovered, ones that no one seemed to know about.

BS: Right, and they are to be carried out just because they are the laws of the Mikado, regardless of how absurd they are. The people have no way to contest the laws.  

OM: For instance, if a husband is beheaded for flirting, his wife must be buried alive. Now here’s a how-de-do! Ti’s death to marry you…Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko’s Solicitor, conveniently finds this old law.

BS: Right. Corroborated by all the other lord-high officials.

OM: Right. Pooh-Bah assumed all of their titles. Never been used because married men never flirt…

BS: Of course they don’t.

OM: But Mikado is to be done in the spring.

BS; Yes.

OM: Let’s talk about The Consul. Opens tomorrow.

BS: Exactly so. Another reason we chose The Consul is because it’s a fantastic opera. Menotti is like the bridge between the operas of Puccini in the early 20th century and the post war era. Part of the evolution of Italian Opera.

OM: I saw it once on stage with our local company. Really an excellent work! Rod Gomez, you’re directing this production; Mary-Hollis Hundley, you’re singing the central role of Magda tomorrow night in the production’s premiere and again the following weekend. Thank you both for speaking with me.

M-HH: You’re welcome.

RG: Thank you for having us.

OM: The Consul was written in the late 1940s, premiering in March of 1950. What with folks trying to escape from the Axis countries before and during the war, and then from the Communist block, the events portrayed in the opera are not at all far from a harsh reality we older folks are only too familiar with. If not these, what events in today’s world seem to you relevant to the story and emotions of the opera?

TG: Yes, it was written during a different time, but there are certainly things which resonate in our contemporary world. I base this production in 1984. The year is a sort of cultural touchstone for all of us who remember that time and, specifically in Orwell’s case, a metaphor for a dystopian world. But certainly it’s not difficult to draw parallels and see everywhere victims of an unfeeling, dehumanized government.

M-HH: I think it is utterly impossible to put on a production of The Consul and not get into politics! It is so completely (and unfortunately) relevant today. It’s a timeless piece in the sense that this family has been ripped apart and unable to survive because of seemingly arbitrary red-tape placed by the bureaucracy. Magda and the rest of their family are trying to join her husband, a freedom fighter of some sort who has fled the country. But all of the hurdles she faces in the consulate won’t allow that. He cannot not come back to get them as he would be arrested immediately and most likely executed.

OM: As an artist, do you tend to wrap yourself in today’s events to get into the proper frame of Magda’s character and the dilemma she faces?

M-HH: In general, sure, I find that in preparing most other roles I have to draw on personal life experiences or current events to get inspiration and perspective. However, I have to do the exact opposite in this opera: I find it to be so relevant and powerful that I rarely made it through the early rehearsals without crying. The Kavanaugh hearing was taking place the day of my callback, the very day I had to perform Magda’s iconic “To this we’ve come…” aria for the very first time. Like many Americans, woman in particular, I was overly emotional due to the proceedings. The aria really hit a little too close to home.

As an aside, ‘self care’ is an extremely important part of our profession and I’m finding the need to close myself off partially to the news these days, especially when I get home from rehearsals late at night. But I hope that I’m doing my part in some small way just by being a participant in this show. The Consul raises one’s awareness of the misuse of power through an eerily similar but distant-enough situation.

OM: As to Magda’s character, Mary-Hollis, give us five or six adjectives that for you describe her dramatic arc through the course of the opera.

M-HH: Almost all of Magda’s emotions are driven by the decisions of other people and outside forces beyond her control. She begins frustrated because her husband’s participation in an illegal political group has made their family a target of the police. When he has to run away to save his own life, he leaves her very specific instructions which she is determined to see through. Her tenacity becomes apparent as she returns to the consulate day after day to no avail, yet she stands up for herself and the rights of others waiting with her. This is when her hopeful aria takes place, although that emotion is tragically short-lived. Her family members begin dying of an illness, leaving her alone and more and more crestfallen. Her ultimate act of selflessness and bravery occurs at the very end of the opera when she has to resort to every tactic to save the lives of her husband and those that work with him.

OM: Which parts of the trajectory are due to face-to-face interactions, requiring the cooperation of others on stage (the stuff of recitative), compared to those parts due to reflections, remembrances, hopes (the stuff of aria)? Rod?

RG: Most interestingly, you’ll find that these things can happen simultaneously layered on top of one another. For example, in the sumptuous finale of Act I, Magda reflects on saying goodbye to the life she has known, but this happens only because, in classic operatic convention, time has stopped during her fight with John. He has just informed her he will be leaving. With his Mother, they all sing simultaneous monologues while being just about face-to-face with the object of their conflict at hand. And then later in the opera, in Act 3, in Magda’s fever-rich dream sequence, her ultimate act is aided and supported by all of the other characters in the opera, in a direct, face-to-face manner.... but this all occurs in the self-reflection of a barely-conscious dream, where Magda is continually facing her own juxtaposed conflict to hold on - and let go - to life itself as a sacrifice to save others, end her own life. Puccini’s Butterfly, of course, comes to mind, as does Suor Angelica.

OM: On the safe assumption that The Consul is not as well known today, as, say, Madama Butterfly, it’s probably a good idea to ask you what an audience member should attend to?

RG: Certainly the dream sequence just mentioned. Magda’s arias are central throughout.

OM: Are there moments in which the music, not the text, therefore not sung, determines the emotional quality of a Magda moment?

M-HH: Oh yes, there is a fabulous scene after the big aria in Act 2 in which Magda is finally given hope for the first time. It’s an opportunity to speak face-to-face with the Consul! The initial disbelief and then hope and excitement she feels can be heard building in the repetitive themes in the strings, but then (without giving TOO much away)…

OM: No, don’t do that…

M-HH: Her dreams are dashed and the mood swing is so great that it ends in her collapsing to the floor. Menotti has perfectly composed these moments and we’re lucky that Rod, our director, has also seen these actions so clearly tied to the music. In an opera that packs a ton of punches, this is one of my favorite moments.

OM: Rod, many of the other characters are to some extent ‘types,’ and if so, are there typical behaviors you seek to bring out so as to indicate that type?

RG: Certainly the nuclear family (Magda, husband John, and Mother) all function as protagonists, and I have aimed to make their relationships and dealings with one another and other characters as human and emotionally connected as possible, which, I should add, is always such a challenge in opera, when the musical and vocal demands are extreme and challenging!

The Secret Policeman is a classic antagonist and I have sought to underplay a menace which is already apparent in a riveting score: he exists as the shadowy, looming nightmare always hovering over, with the promise of ill-will. But lest you think all is doom and gloom in this Consul-land, meet the Magician, a quasi-foil to the linear drama, who, while not exactly comic relief, brings a relaxing of the inherent dramatic tension.

OM: From a singing actress’s point of view, Mary-Hollis, what qualities of the role of Magda make it special, worth your time pursuing it as an artist? Have you sung the role before? And apart from the joy of performing it well, what, so far, have been the most gratifying parts of the role?

M-HH: This is my first experience with Magda. I was not very familiar with The Consul before I was cast, in fact, I had never looked at the aria until preparing for the auditions. We know in the business it’s never smart to go into an audition with too high of hopes, but I must say I have rarely wanted to be cast so badly in a role. Magda is such a powerful woman and I find myself admiring her in many ways as I prepare the role. She is extremely dedicated to her family and, most of all, brave. She is brave in situations where I’m sure that I would shirk away. She stands up for her husband, for herself, for all the others struggling with similar bureaucratic nightmares and ends up making the ultimate sacrifice to save others. I find that I am enjoying the words and the acting almost more than the singing in some ways. It’s not that Menotti’s music isn’t fabulous here, because it is, very much fabulous and I love singing it! It’s just that I find Magda so complex and strong. It’s Menotti’s libretto that has been speaking to me. It could be a play with musical interludes/scene changes and still be successful, in my opinion. So as an actor, I can say that I’m enjoying this role immensely, even if it is extremely tough material to have to inhabit every day.

OM: What roles in your repertory prepare you best for Magda and in what ways?

M-HH: Not many roles that I have sung have truly prepared me for Magda. I recently sang the Mother in Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, so I thought “oh, okay, no problem, I already understand his language and how he composes for the voice...”

OM: There’s a ‘but’ here.

M-HH: Right! WRONG! This opera is next-level stuff! It’s fully orchestrated and lush with lots of brass, almost more like Carlisle Floyd’s works, and it sits in a similar range to many of the Benjamin Britten roles I’ve loved singing, so I’m finding those roles to be helpful in preparing for much of this middle-voice recitative-like singing.

As an aside, my dream role is Richard Strauss’s Salome.

OM: Wow!

M-HH: But before this I’m making my first advances into Wagner repertoire now. I think Magda may be the perfect bridge. This has been a rare and perhaps uniquely gratifying role for me in that way as well.

OM: Thank you all, thank you Ben, thank you Rod, thank you Mary-Hollis for your time and intelligent words. Wishing you all, the rest of the cast and company a successful run of The Consul. It’s been a sincere pleasure!

The Bronx Opera’s production of The Consul is performed in the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College in the Bronx. Eric Kramer conducts all peformances; Rod Gomez directs; sets and costumes are by Meganne George; lighting is by Joshua Rose. There will be a total of four performances in the two weekends. It opens Saturday, January 12, with Mary-Hollis Hundley as Magda, curtain at 7:30 p.m. With her is Jeremy Moore as John, Magda’s husband. His Mother is played by Caroline Tye, the Secretary is Cara Search, the Secret Police Agent is Joseph Gansert, the Magician is Daniel Foltz-Morrison, Vera is Amy Maude Helfer, Kofner is Ben Hoyer, the Foreign Woman is Leslie Swanson, Anna Gomez is Francesca Federico, and Assan is sung by Conrad Schmechel. This cast performs again, the last of the run, on Saturday, January 19 at 2:30 p.m.

The second performance of The Consul is this weekend, Sunday, January 13 at 2:30 p.m. Marina Harris sings Magda. With her is Markel Reed as John; his Mother is Allison Gish, the Secretary is Mary Beth Nelson, the Secret Police Agent is Wil Kellerman, the Magician is Stephen Steffens, Vera is Jackie M. Hayes, Kofner is Michael Cofield, the Foreign Woman is Miriam Chaudoir, Anna Gomez is Aida Carducci, and Assan is again sung by Conrad Schmechel. This cast performs The Consul again on Friday evening, January 18 at 7:30 p.m.

The ticket link for all performances is: https://bronxconsul.brownpapertickets.com

Best wishes to all for another great season BxO!

Shall survive the winter. Stay warm