The Florida Grand Opera’s (FGO) 2014-15 season comes to a close with a production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, a modern opera in three acts. First performed in 1950, Menotti’s first full-length opera is a study on the causalities of political dissidence upon a family. Leading the drama is soprano Kara Shay Thomson in the role of Magda Sorel, a devoted wife on a collision course with the bureaucratic excesses of a police state. Menotti’s libretto might’ve been written under the weather of the late ‘40s and the political climate of America then, but the story’s visa-acquiring plot should be of particular resonance to recent transplants from socialized South America.
No stranger to this opera is local resident and Baltimore native Jason Ferrante who’ll be reprising his role as Nika Magadoff (the Magician), a character that gives the drama a slightly comical tone under the duress of the suspenseful and bureaucratically stymieing proceedings of the libretto. The young singer has been recognized as one of the leading character singers of his generation and has drawn praise from critical operatic circles for his work in over 70 productions in five continents.
We had an opportunity to speak with Ferrante ahead of the opera’s opening to discuss this perfect allegory for South Florida’s diverse community.
New Times: What attracted you to a career in opera in the first place?
Jason Ferrante: When I was 14, I realized I was too short to pursue a career as a baseball player so I applied for the Baltimore School for the Arts. It's a conservatory high school in my hometown of Baltimore. I thought I was going to be auditioning for the drama division, which I did. On a whim, I also auditioned for voice. I didn't get into drama but was offered a spot in the voice department. My older colleagues were all singing opera and classical repertoire and I wanted to be like them.
Four years later, I was off to Juilliard. That school absolutely changed my life. I also had very supportive parents and grew up in a down-to-earth, liberal community. I'm a goofball, and you have to be to put up with the cast of characters you encounter in this industry.
You’re no stranger to The Consul. What has been your experience with the libretto?
I first sang the Magician in The Consul ten years ago in a magnificent production at the Arizona Opera. We are actually performing on that set here in Miami and it's a good one. I've been living with this role for a decade and it's my favorite of all of Menotti's works. The piece holds a special place in my heart. I lost a relative during the rehearsal period in Arizona. Hearing the music brings back a lot of memories both happy and sad. Our cast here at FGO is extraordinary from top to bottom. I've never been more excited to do a part again. The words are direct, often unusual and always provocative.
What stands out from this work as a modern piece that you’d exemplify as an example of opera’s viability?
If you look at the themes in this show, you could likely draw parallels to many current events. I bet if you interview someone in 100 years about this they will say the same. I guess it depends on how you define "modern.” For me, it's something bigger than just contemporary chords and orchestration. How does it make you feel? If you watch The Consul and can relate to what's going on on stage to something going on in your mind, heart, or life, then that's pretty modern to me.
You’re a young man in this game, what kind of challenges are you looking forward to? Are there other roles on the American stage you’d like to pursue?
I'm turning 40 in August, so thanks for that! I'm looking forward to exploring some repertoire that I may not have sung as a younger man. I have a voice that I think is pretty and expressive but not necessarily "loud.” I do feel it growing a bit, though. I'd love to have a stab at Mime in Wagner's Ring Cycle. I love singing the Beadle in Sweeney Todd. I was the first Beadle in a professional production in Italy and I hope I get a chance to do that role as often as I can until I quit singing. I've also never sung Beppe in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. That one is at the top of my bucket list.
The Consul was written over 60 years ago, why is it still a reflection of modern society?
We all feel lost or trapped at least once in our lives. I know I feel that way at least once a day. As I answer these questions, I'm watching news coverage from my beloved hometown of Baltimore as police and protestors clash in the streets. The frustration of feeling like your voice isn't heard is a universal one. Haven't we all just wanted to escape?
What do you bring to the role beyond its call? How much of you is in the role, given that you are theoretically within a cast-range that can define this opera?
Reviews regularly refer to the Magician's role as a moment of "comic relief.” Sure, you'll laugh at some of the things I do. I take it a little more seriously, though. I like to play the creepier side of him. He likes to invade the personal space of the people around him in order to gain their trust. When he hypnotizes the people in the waiting room, it's not because he's a great hypnotist. It's that they are so willing and wanting to escape their current situation. My friends might tell you I generally put on a one-man-show in social situations, so maybe there's that!
What is the general feel for the FGO’s production of The Consul?
It's a clean, open, and honest production. The feelings are out there and in your face. This cast is amazing and we get along really well. You'll see such a wide range of talents and experiences in this show from some of FGO's gifted Young Artists in smaller, but crucial roles to our world class leads. I find myself sitting on the sidelines when I'm not in a scene just watching my colleagues go there.
As a performer and artist, the FGO has had an ambitious season, what compels you and others to work in South Florida – an area notoriously known for eschewing the performing arts and quality music?
FGO is a fantastic company with a fabled history. I wanted to sing here long before I actually lived here. The theater is beautiful, too. I wish there were simpler answers when it comes to audience building. One of the things I love about Miami is the element of "instant gratification.” I hope anyone reading this will make it their goal to attend an opera within the next year, like this one!
You'll see a performance that belongs totally to you. It's never been heard before and is being created on the spot, with no editing, just for you. My colleagues in audience services may get mad at me, but as a singer, I don't care what you wear. Just come. I'm going to give you the same performance whether you're in a tux or in your underwear.
What’s next for you artistically?
My next few months will be spent wearing my voice teacher hat. I have trips planned this summer to do some teaching in NYC, Atlanta, Philly, St. Louis and then in Vancouver, BC, where I will be on the voice faculty of the UBC Summer Voice Workshop. I have students singing all around the world and I am bonkers when I get to travel and see them do their thing.
Florida Grand Opera presents Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, conducted by Andrew Bisantz and directed by Julie Maykowski at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 9 at the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost from $21 to $225. Call 305-949-6722 or visit fgo.org.