There are more than 22 million administrative and office support professionals working in the United States and more than 475,000 administrative professionals are employed in Canada and millions more work in offices all over the world. For one, my late Mother was what they used to call back then a “secretary” – people who made offices tick before the advent of computers and office automation through typing, taking short hand, and other general office duties.

We haven’t called them secretaries for a while now… In fact, since 1952, we honor office workers by observing Administrative Professionals Week. Today, it is one of the largest workplace observances outside of employee birthdays and major holidays.

Each year, administrative professionals are recognized for their skills and loyalty, attributes almost every office depends upon. Administrative Professionals Week celebrates and sheds light on administrative professionals’ devoted, valued work.

Although this is a week-long celebration, today (April 22nd) is singled out as “Administrative Professionals Day”, and to mark the occasion, I decided ro program an opera that features predominantly an Administrative Professional – Gian Calo Menotti’s The Consul.

This opera, which premiered in 1950, is a contemporary period piece, set in a very topical back-drop: the Cold War. The Consul earned Menotti the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 1950 New York Drama Critics' Circle award for Best Musical.

Opera has a tendency to play with emotions, and in particular the emotions of the audience. When it comes to emotions, there is no doubt that The Consul may very well be the most depressing work I have ever listened to – there are few light moments, and certainly no escape from its bitter and dark premise.

In 1980, brothers Anton and Peter Stastny left Czechoslovakia via Austria to join the Quebec Nordiques of the National Hockey League, leaving behind their older brother Marian (who managed to leave the then-Communist bloc country to join his brothers after spending a few years out of hockey working as a laborer). A country like Czechoslovakia, sharing a border with a Western nation like Austria, could serve as a good mental model for the Sorel’s homeland.

Eastern bloc countries were notorious for plainclothes secret (political) police forces that dealt with any activity that could possibly be considered anti-communist. The spectre of such a secret police force is an important part of the intrigue in today’s opera. John Sorel tries to elude the secret police and reach the Western frontier, asking his wife Magda to seek a visa for herself and their infant son at the consular office.

Of course, meeting the consul to request a visa and asylum means placating “the consular secretary”, a red-tape zealot who isn’t swayed by any body’s hardship or plight.

Each of the three acts of the opera involves two venues: the Sorel household where Magda interacts with her Mother-in-Law and supporters of her husband and his undisclosed cause, emphasizing how dire things are for her and her family, and the consular office, where Magda and other visa seekers urge the secretary for an audience with the Consul – only to be asked to fill forms, provide documents, all of which needs to be satisfactorily fulfilled before a meeting can even be scheduled.

All through the opera, Menotti’s music and libretto set the austere and deleterious tone that clearly reflects the urgency and hopelessness of Magda Sorel’s situation, and one can only feel Magda's anguish when the dreaded Chief of the Secret Police is seen leaving the Consul’s office.

Sixty-five years after its premiere, The Consul is more than a reminder of a world from our recent past – it is a reflection of a creative period that gave us the film noir and the spy thriller.

Today’s performance is a powerful 1960 television production of Menotti's most provocative work. Patricia Neway, the famed creator of the role of Madga Sorel in the Broadway run of this opera, brings the character to life her with astonishing realism.

Gian Carlo MENOTTI (1911-2007)
The Consul (1950)
Opera in three acts, English libretto by the composer

Patricia Neway (Magda Sorel)
Chester Ludgin (John Sorel)
Evelyn Sachs (Mother)
Leon Lishner (Police Agent)
Regina Sarfaty (Secretary)
Norman Kelley (Magician)

Television orchestra under Werner Torkanowsky

As I have done before, this performance is edited from one of Sean Bianco’s fine At The Opera podcasts, and I have included his spoken introductions.

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