When the Berlin Wall opened and totalitarian regimes fell in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany and Romania, one Kansas University associate professor thought he was in trouble.
Delbert Unruh was about to direct "The Consul," a 1950 opera about the plight of a woman in a country similar to those of Cold War Eastern Europe. Suddenly, he feared, the material could be dated by events.
"When we were picking the opera a year ago, events in Poland were
coming to a head," said Unruh, who both directs and designs the Kansas University theater department production. "The opera, we felt, had tremendous topicality to it. Then, with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the events in Eastern Europe, I wasn't all that sure anymore. I remember watching the Berlin Wall on television and thinking, `Oh my God, we can't do this opera anymore.'"
BUT INSTEAD of giving up, Unruh decided to go with an expanded concept of the opera, one that could give make the opera's plot timeless.
"After I got over the anxiety, I actually took a look at it again, and I think the opera still holds up today," he said.
"The Consul," the work of contemporary composer Gian Carlo Menotti, was one of the few operas produced on Broadway. It opened in 1950, at a time when the Iron Curtain had descended on countries within the Soviet sphere of influence, and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award from the press. Menotti also composed such popular operas as "The Medium and the Telephone," also produced on Broadway, and "Amahl and the Night Visitors," produced in the 1950s on television.
THE PLOT concerns the efforts of a young woman named Magda, played by graduate student Jocelyn Stahl, to get her infant and herself out of an oppressive country to join her husband in exile. As the opera progresses, she encounters more and more bureaucracy.
To make his production of the opera relevant to today as well as 1950, Unruh has incorporated designs and costumes that suggest many different periods from the last 40 years."
"Certain things we see can only be inherent to 1950," Unruh said. "Then other things we see have contemporary look. For example, in the costumes, some people dress like they would have in 1950 Eastern Europe, and others look like they came from today."
In addition to the costumes, Unruh designed a projection screen to hang above the set. For each scene, Unruh selected a projection to highlight a particular moment or feeling from post-Second World War history.
"SOME OF the images come from the Hungarian revolt in 1956," he said. "Others come from the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Wall. The images should remind people of recent history."
Another element that gives the opera a modern feel, Unruh said, is its lack of exposition. The opera reveals very little about what happened to the characters in the past; the plot concerns the immediate circumstances of the characters.
"What you see is what you get," he said. "As I work in the theater, I've grown tired of all that exposition some plays have. Long passages of exhibition to me are more and more irrelevant. People can process information a lot faster than they used to, they don't need all that background."
JOINING UNRUH in producing the show are Jorge Perez-Gomez, an associate professor of orchestra, who will conduct the performance, and Mark Ferrell, an assistant professor of voice, who is the vocal coach.
To direct the opera, Unruh said, he needs to work closely with the music directors to make sure the action flows with the music.
"You rely tremendously on the conductor," he said. "To approach an opera, you're dealing with a score, and you need to find an entry into it."
"The Consul" will be performed Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday a 8 p.m. and April 8 at 2:30 p.m. at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre on the KU campus. Tickets are available at the Murphy Hall Box Office.