A man fleeing a totalitarian country is separated from his family, leaving his wife to wait for a visa that is never issued.

The plot of Gian Carlo Menotti's Pulitzer-winning opera "The Consul," first performed in 1950, remains joltingly topical in a week when migrants were tear-gassed at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mainly remembered these days as the life-partner of American composer Samuel Barber, Menotti is also known for his popular Christmas opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

"The Consul" strikes an entirely different tone. A dark, lugubrious drama with Kafka-esque overtones, the work left a sharp, unsettling impression in a staging by brand-new Arbeit Opera Theatre Thursday evening at the Wellstone Center in St. Paul.

Much of its impact came from the intensely committed performance of Norah Long in the central role of Magda Sorel, whose husband John is on the run from totalitarian authorities.

Long's résumé spans spoken theater, music theater and opera. All her skills were brought to bear in a searing account of the key scena "To this we've come," with Magda's frustrations erupting against a visa system mired in obfuscation and heartless bureaucracy.

That Long's performance didn't eclipse everything else on stage is tribute to Arbeit's casting, which drew exclusively on Minnesota-based artists. Standouts included baritone Justin Spenner's frazzled John Sorel as well as bass Chandler Molbert as the Secret Police Agent. Eric Broker's smooth, articulate baritone made much of longtime visa seeker Mr. Kofner. And Gary Briggle's exuberant cameo as the Magician (tricks included) brightened the action's grim trajectory.

As Secretary of the Consulate, mezzo-soprano KrisAnne Weiss deftly balanced the character's glib efficiency with glints of feeling for the visa applicants. Soprano Amy Wolf was particularly affecting as a woman desperate for travel permission to visit her ailing daughter.

Music director Lara Bolton was a heroic presence at the piano, playing a complex, technically demanding reduction of Menotti's original orchestral score.

Kneading the action together was the sensitive guiding hand of director David Radamés Toro, whose feeling for each character stopped the opera from seeming like a rant. Toro skillfully incorporated the sinuous choreography of Jennifer Mack, economically moving the characters through a set of moving screens built by students at Mounds Park Academy.

"The Consul" is a hard-hitting piece of music theater, with uncomfortable parallels to our present moment. In choosing it to launch Arbeit Opera Theatre, company founder Kelly Turpin has thrown a gauntlet down to those inclined to think opera consists mainly of prima donnas, pretty tunes and preening.

Thursday evening's production was more than that, snapping today's mass migration issues into disturbing focus.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.