I had the privilege of seeing the Seattle Opera perform “The Consul.” This Gian Carlo Menotti opera, which runs through March 7, 2014, deals with the frustration and torment of freedom and opportunity seekers everywhere trying to apply for visas and the bureaucracy they face. Althoughneither the location nor the government involved is mentioned in this opera, it is set in the 1940s or 1950s. Menotti’s idea for the opera was inspired by a New York Times article about a woman from Poland who committed suicide at Ellis Island after she was refused admission to the USA.
The issues in The Consul are the same today and accurately reflect what I hear from people every day who have been denied visas around the world: they feel they are treated briskly (“Next!”); no amount of paperwork is ever enough; their personal stories are not heard (only do you qualify or not); and that visas tend to be issued to the wealthiest of individuals. In the opera, the consular Secretary pronounces: “These photos are not the right size.” “This paper must be notarized.” “No one is allowed to see the Consul. The Consul is busy.” “I don’t see how we can help you.” “I can’t make an exception. It would upset our system.”
The music is interesting though it can be a bit disconcerting given the somber story. However, the lyrics are spot-on from my perspective based on what I know about the visa application process.
Just imagine yourself today in places like Syria, Ukraine, Nigeria and other trouble spots around the world, where US consular officers and those of other countries are inundated with people pleading for visas and a means to escape. Somehow, the consular staff must also protect themselves (their jobs and their emotions) from caring too much about others 24/7. To be fair, consular officers have a very hard job to do. They often have to make quick judgments about a person (though you would think by telling people to come back over and over again, they would get to know a person well). To read some interesting blog posts from the consular officers’ points of view (vetted of course, since it is a government site), see Dipnote. Another interesting site, is Consular Corner on Facebook run by my colleague in Israel, Lliam Schwartz. The Consul raises the question, whether the Secretary will break the rules and do the right thing.
Back to the opera, the long and the short of it is, “bureaucracy and totalitarianism can close every border except one.” And that one is the soul. As Magda sings in an aria as the lead woman pleading her case for a visa so she can join her husband who has escaped:
“The day will come, I know, when our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains! Warn the Consul, Secretary, warn him: that day neither ink nor seal shall cage our souls. That day will come, that day will come.”