By Brian Staufenbiel
Operas, like airports, are filled with stories. Some are familiar, some violent, some funny. Like airports, they are crammed with messy human lives journeying to a final destination. To push the metaphor, operas can transport us all over the world and connect us to what is happening now. Indeed, today we’re seeing more and more new operatic stories that are relevant, inclusive, and speak to our modern world—even to the point of setting an opera about a true story that took place in an airport. Jonathan Dove’s Flight is a funny, poignant, and thought-provoking exploration of colliding souls, each of whom is looking for something better, searching for that elusive dream state we sometimes call happiness. At the heart of the show is a story inspired by that of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris for almost eighteen years—from August 1988 until July 2006.
Telling this story in the medium of a film produced with rigorous social-distancing protocols demands a nod to the COVID pandemic. The resonance for Flight is striking. We have been plunged into a hundred-year event that has left hundreds of millions sequestered and exhausted. It is perhaps easier now to feel, viscerally, what it was like for Nasseri to be isolated and even ostracized, what the world would be like if no one would come close to you and wrap their arms around you and whisper in your ear, I love you. That sense of separation, even banishment, is the crux of Flight. Sure, it is a dark comedy, and you will laugh a lot. But deep in the narrative is a real exploration about how we treat each other and what we owe to fellow human beings—especially the people we do not know or feel kinship with. The opera finds fresh ways to show how we can “other” someone with a judgmental glance and how this all-too-common impulse negates our ability to feel the empathy necessary to know someone.
Empathy works in multiple directions. We can walk miles in many shoes. As you watch this narrative about a tired, desperate protagonist asking for help, you might imagine yourself behaving the same way as the travelers in the opera, inclined to say, “Please leave me alone,” or worse not even acknowledging he is there. Deftly, the celebrated librettist April de Angelis waits until the end of the opera—as our refugee is being arrested—to give him the opportunity to tell his story in the form of a brilliant aria. (Flight is an opera after all!) Only then, after the cast of disparate characters learns of his harrowing history, do they come to his aid. Their empathy has finally been roused. These are the same people who shunned him, beat him, and left him for dead. In Flight, you need to travel a thousand miles in his airborne wheel well and learn that his brother has fallen out, died—and taken his papers with him, stranding him in the airport indefinitely—before you know him. The cast of characters, stand-ins for humanity, give us hope, changing before our eyes, as they try to help and make a difference. They evolve, but only after a thousand miles of listening. Flight is a journey that all of us could, or maybe should, take more often.