Dove’s “Flight” explores human relations in soaring Utah Opera debut

Mon Jan 17, 2022 at 11:41 am
By Rick Mortensen
Utah Opera’s production of Jonathan Dove’s Flight runs through January 23. Photo: Utah Opera.

When performing an opera set in an airport, it’s a cute idea to have uniformed flight attendants take the stage to make the “Turn off your cell phones” announcement.  

At Utah Opera’s first-rate opening night performance of Flight at the Capitol Theatre, the introduction made the audience members feel like fellow travelers on what would prove to be a delightful and poignant journey. Less welcome was the next announcement: that due to the Omicron surge, the orchestra would not include brass or woodwinds. That made one feel like the captain announcing there would be no in-flight Wifi.

Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth, who made the announcement, explained that the brass and wind parts would be played by a second piano and that the change in orchestration was approved by the composer. As the opera progressed, the audience may well have wondered how the score’s soaring, triumphant passages might have sounded with horns,, trumpets, and flute but for the most part, the instruments’ absence was not conspicuous. Conductor Robert Tweten, and the remaining musicians—playing two pianos, strings, and ample percussion—brought the score to life and provided a vibrant backdrop to the onstage action.

Written for Glyndebourne Opera and premiered in 1998, Flight features a distinctive score by composer Jonathan Dove. Its musical language could be described as John Adams meets Benjamin Britten, with driving rhythms; open-chord ostinatos coalescing into rich harmonies; and accessible melodic fragments that sound like they might break into a showtune but never quite do. 

The opera takes place entirely in an airport departure terminal and centers around the interactions of ten stranded characters. The struggles of one character, known only as “The Refugee,” provide a stark contrast to the first-world problems of the others.

Despite its prosaic setting, Flight is more surreal than realistic, with several implausible plot points and a story that serves mostly as a device to explore themes of family, home, class, loneliness, kindness, and sexual attraction. 

The libretto by April De Angelis was inspired by the true story of Iranian refugee Mehran Nasseri, who spent 18 years living in the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. The event also inspired the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie, The Terminal with Tom Hanks.

The opera is quite funny, employing both witty lyrics and lowbrow sight gags in much the same way as the Mozart/Da Ponte operas. Yet De Angelis uses the Refugee as an archetype symbolizing an outsider or “other,” and the airport as a symbol of transition. Like the Mozart operas, Flight is at its best when it goes deeper and sheds light on an aspect of human nature or society.      

One such moment is the opera’s beginning, which is a duet between the Refugee and a woman known as “the Controller” in a terminal before travelers have arrived. The first music heard is for the Refugee, a countertenor, expressing hope and excitement in a range usually reserved for a mezzo soprano. While the audience soon adjusts to the somewhat unusual sound of his voice, casting him as a countertenor sets the Refugee apart from the other characters. 

The Controller, on the other hand, is a coloratura soprano. Spending most of the opera in a booth at the top of a spiral staircase, the Controller watches the drama unfold beneath her with disdain, officiously announcing misfortunes, dangers, and canceled flights. The audience and ensemble is left to wonder whether she might also be controlling the unfortunate events.

Making his Utah Opera debut, John Holiday captured the character’s vulnerability and ingenuity, and his countertenor voice was sublime. While the Controller can afford to hate the other travelers, the Refugee depends on their generosity to survive and must be attuned to their deepest desires so he can win them over as allies. 

Abigail Rethwisch’s fearsome vocal power and range served the character of the Controller well, and she seemed to summon the storm with her voice. Her character’s strange attachment to the Refugee—she wants him to gaze adoringly only at her—and her fierce jealousy when he mingles with the travelers brings a touch of menace to the proceedings, and her virtuosic “mad scene” in the second act is both technically glorious and frightening.  

Bill and Tina are a couple trying to put the spark back in their marriage with a tropical vacation. With an entrance heralded by marimba and percussion, they draw the entire ensemble into their excitement over their holiday that must solve all their problems, manifesting their hope and desperation. Utah Opera resident artists Julia Gershkoff and Daniel O’Hearn are perfect as the hapless couple, both vocally and dramatically, and drew the company’s biggest laughs.

The couple’s foil are the Steward and Stewardess, whose relationship is nothing but spark. They steal away for quickies whenever they have a few moments to spare, but when they are stranded together for a whole night their attraction fizzles. As the randy couple, Edith Grossman and Evan Hammond gamely played off one another, adding to the erotic and comic tension.

A pair of mezzo sopranos round out the ensemble. The  “Older Woman” is waiting for the arrival of her much younger “fiancé” and her anxiety that he may be her last chance at love is underscored by ominous chords in the strings.  Deanne Meek brought nuance and pathos to the role with a mellow tone and refined vocal phrasing.  

The pregnant “Minskwoman” arrives with her husband, who is bound for a diplomatic outpost, yet she cannot bring herself to board the plane and begin her new life. Her aria about her impending motherhood and the resulting loss of identity and freedom is one of the most poignant moments of the show, and Elise Quagliata delivered it stunningly, filling each phrase with longing and despair.

A delightful aspect of Flight, highlighted in this production, is the way the cast functions as an ensemble, reacting as a group to one another’s stories and at different times, comforting and disappointing one another. 

Director Kristine McIntyre did an excellent job instilling each character with a clear objective and making sure their interactions were authentic. 

The cast particularly shone in the moments when they reacted as a group. It was chilling to watch each of the travelers dismiss the Refugee, with a curt and almost identical “We can’t help you,” when he begged them for help evading the immigration officer, and it was thrilling as they all watched a plane take off or land, pausing their worries to gaze in wonder at the miracle of human flight.

The joy of the take-offs and landings was aided by Dove’s soaring, rhythmic music and James Sales’ lighting design; as the cast moved their gaze in unison to follow the plane taking off over the audience, the house lights went on and flickered for a moment to show the plane briefly blocking out the sun.   

In the 23 years since its premiere, Flight has received dozens of productions by companies around the globe. As long as there are refugees, lonely travelers, and ambivalent married couples, Dove’s opera appears likely to continue to find companies and audiences eager to explore these themes.

Flight continues at the Capitol Theatre 50 W. 200 S. January 17 and 19 at 7 p.m., Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. and Jan. 23rd at 2 p.m.  Visit for tickets and more information.     

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