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Too Hot to Handel

Opera leaders struggle with post-9/11 travel

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When Christopher Hahn describes how Pittsburgh Opera's foreign artists obtain their work visas it's with typical operatic bombast: "Byzantine," and "perfectly Kafkaesque." But while the Opera's artistic director feels his organization understands the rules -- and the quirks -- of the post-9/11 immigration system well enough to manage, there are still moments when the bureaucratic labyrinth makes Hahn and Artist Coordinator Chris Powell's aria turn tragic.

 

Two weeks ago, less than a month before Pittsburgh Opera's production of Handel's Julius Caesar was to begin, soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska still had not received the work visa she'd applied for nearly six months before. "The show must go on in our world," says Hahn. "It's highly unlikely we'd ever cancel. But this particular instance is a very atypical opera, sung by specialists -- it requires a lot of preparation. I couldn't have brought someone in and [tried] to teach it to them in three weeks. I did wonder for a moment if we'd have to cancel."

 

Fortunately, one soprano who does know the role was available -- a Korean, who, miraculously, happens to have a green card. But this is not the first time a production's future has hung by a bureaucratic thread. Since the reworking of immigration policy brought about by the war on terror, such occurrences have become more and more common.

 

"These problems have always existed, simply because the four [U.S. visa] service centers are all overworked, and when it comes to artists, it's not exactly top priority," says Powell, whose tasks as artist coordinator include guest artists' paperwork. But, he adds, "since 9/11 it has been more pronounced."

 

This isn't just Pittsburgh Opera's problem, but an arts-industry-wide difficulty. In order to decrease the recent backlog, visa applications can now only be submitted six months before the start of work -- a timeframe already unrealistic, but made doubly so when you take into account that every foreign embassy has its own rules. In Tel Aviv, for example, there is a 30-day waiting period between getting the go-ahead from the U.S. government and when an artist can actually acquire the paperwork. According to Hahn and Powell, what was once a last resort -- paying a fee to expedite processing, and getting congressional help in pushing the system along -- is now the status quo. Another singer in Julius Caesar, French countertenor Christophe Dumaux, only barely received his credentials in time, and then only with the last-minute pleading of Sen. Rick Santorum's office.

 

"The dampening effect is that you think very hard about who you're going to bring," says Hahn. "In earlier years, you had a fighting chance of getting someone, but now your chances are halved to a certain part of world ..."

 

Pittsburgh Opera is luckier than some, he adds, largely because of government officials willing to go to bat for artists and because the Vermont immigration office that handles visas for our region is actually one of the more responsive ones. Unlike many smaller companies, Pittsburgh Opera can handle the $1,000 expedited processing fee, although with difficulty.

 

Hahn has no plans to lower the organization's standards, but he and Powell realize that problems, and emergency replacements, will be a part of their jobs for the foreseeable future.

 

"September 11 has made it more difficult to get a foreign artist in, and deservedly so -- I'm glad that they're scrutinizing more," Powell allows. "But these, after all, are opera singers."

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