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Mock costume sketches for the "Stewardess" & "Refugee" in Pacific Opera Victoria's Flight. Photo: Dana Osborne

When Pacific Opera Victoria (POV) Artistic Director Timothy Vernon picked up a score of Flight at an Opera America conference, it immediately piqued his interest.

After all, Vernon had met composer Jonathan Dove at the Banff Centre a few years previously, where the former was working on the new Canadian opera Mary’s Wedding and the latter was in residence. Vernon was even hearing snippets from Flight in audition rooms, and he was intrigued.

“Everything was pointing at Flight, so when we came to discuss the 2019-2020 season, it seemed like a perfect fit in between Puccini [Il trittico] and Carmen,” Vernon said.

POV’s production of Flight marks its Canadian premiere. It’s based on the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport for several years, unable to leave the terminal due to his immigration status.

Making up the rest of the creative team is renowned Canadian director Morris Panych and his set designer partner Ken MacDonald. They return to POV having worked there previously on The Barber of Seville in 2016.

“Rather than just a story about a refugee stuck in an airport, it’s a much denser story about existentialism and how much freedom you really have,” said Panych. “How much ability do you really have to escape?”

The story follows the lives of characters on their way to various destinations via the airport departure lounge. A storm whips up, and their narratives start to conflict while they’re trapped in the airport.

“The other characters are under the illusion that they can actually get out of somewhere when in fact they’re all trapped in their own lives and situations that they’ll never escape,” said Panych.

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The TWA Hotel in New York City. Photo: TWA Hotel.

The inspiration for set designer Ken MacDonald came from the TWA Flight Centre in New York City. Formerly a terminal at the John F. Kennedy airport, it’s now home to an award-winning hotel and is an official New York City landmark.

“It’s absolutely stunning and that was my influence for the design, even though the set doesn’t look exactly similar,” said MacDonald. “All the curved staircases and ceilings at the TWA were designed pre-computer, and that’s incredibly inspiring to me.”

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Preliminary sketch of the airport terminal for POV’s Flight. Photo: Ken MacDonald.

MacDonald’s design for Flight is a blended airport scene, with an air-traffic control tower looming imposingly high over centre stage. The controller—sung by soprano Sharleen Joynt—stays in the tower perch for much of the show, acting as the divine overseer for the cast of characters. The stage floor is marked with airport runway lines, blurring the line between terminal and airport runway.

The outsider

Countertenor William Towers plays the refugee, trapped in perpetuity in the terminal. Panych has worked closely with Towers and the rest of the cast to create and reinforce the concept of the refugee as the outsider of the piece.

“Will is a great actor,” said Panych. “He’s bringing a lot of empathy to the character, without [even] trying and we’ve worked together on trying to make him empathetic without being sad. We’re trying to keep the character positive.”

The concept of the outsider permeates through to the refugee’s clothing, which costume designer Dana Osborne deliberately crafts to emulate a man who could just as well exist today as in the past.

“The idea is that the refugee is a timeless character, so it’s reflected in the way we choose to dress him,”  said Osborne. “Although we dress some of the other characters from a 60s fashion lens, the refugee is dressed in a way to reflect refugees that still exist in the present day.” 

Towers is no stranger to countertenor roles in contemporary opera, having originated roles in world premieres like Harrison Birtwhistle’s Minotaur and Paul Frehner’s Sirius on Earth. Panych uses Towers’ strong and resonant upper range to further isolate the refugee from the rest of the people in the airport.

“The fact that (the refugee) sings countertenor reinforces the fact of how much of an outsider he is. I even have the other actors reacting to his countertenor sound as if it’s some horrible other language that they don’t want to hear.”

An ethereal score

Vernon will be conducting the piece, adding to the long list of POV productions he has helmed.

“It’s unlike many contemporary operas,” said Vernon. “You can hear the echoes of 17th-century polyphony.”

Dove’s score—with English language libretto by April De Angelis—navigates the numerous story lines of Flight, including everything from a childbirth to a composed orgasm.

“Even with the variety of comic situations, there is a spirituality to the piece,” said Vernon. “Tonally, it’s challenging in the best way.”

Flight runs from Feb. 20th – March 1st at the Royal Theatre in Victoria, British Columbia.