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Glimmerglass Festival / Guggenheim Works & Process: BLUE
Composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson, along with Glimmerglass Festival Artistic & General Director Francesca Zambello, presented a Guggenheim Works & Process program about Tesori/Thompson’s new opera for Glimmerglass, BLUE, at the museum on February 11. The provocative conversation about the development of BLUE was interspersed with excerpts performed by bass-baritone Kenneth Kellogg, Mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter, Soprano Ariana Douglas, and tenor Aaron Crouch, with Kevin Miller at the piano.
HOW BLUE CAME TO BE – by Tazewell Thompson, librettist and director of BLUE
From The Glimmerglass Festival Fall 2018 Donor Magazine FanFare.
In 2019, Glimmerglass will present the world
premiere of BLUE, by composer Jeanine Tesori
with a libretto by Tazewell Thompson, who will
also direct. We asked Tazewell to share with
Fanfare readers a look inside the process of
developing this new opera.
In the fall of 2015, I received an email from Francesca Zambello: “I’m interested in commissioning an opera about race in America; where we are today, as a country, dealing with this issue. I have a composer set. I’m looking for a librettist. What are your thoughts on the following writers?” She listed five. All names known to me. Two famous. Two had written operas before. Two persons of color. Male. Female. “What about me?” I asked.
Words into pictures
I wasn’t sure if she knew that I have authored plays and have had them produced. One play, my first, won all kinds of awards and has had 14 national productions at fairly prominent theaters. I have two long overdue commissions for new plays for both Lincoln Center Theater and People’s Light Theater in Malvern, Pennsylvania. I have been writing each night, a diary of sorts, since I was a child and could hold a crayon and scribble. Fascinated by words, and letters that make up words, seeing the pictures they make and the relationships they form arranged next to each other.
I was first introduced to storytelling as a 7-year-old by Sister Martin DePorres, who read everything — from The Hardy Boys series to chapters from Charles Dickens — to me and 29 other boys at bedtime in the Convent of St. Dominic, Blauvelt, New York, where I spent seven years of my childhood. It never put me to sleep. It filled my head with images that inspired me to make up my own stories. I would read them to anyone who would listen. I made books from colored construction paper and bound them with pipe cleaners. Sister Charles Williams encouraged me to take the next step and write for Veritas, the student paper. I became the paper’s editor at 9 years old, getting high on my power and the aroma of mimeograph machine fluid. Poetry was my real calling. I loved memorizing epic story poems and sonnets. I devoured Frost, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare, my favorite. I walked around reciting, like a talking head out of Fahrenheit 451. I entered oratorical contests. I was in love with the sound of my own voice and the discovery I made that words were not democratic, some were special and needed to be framed or stressed or served up more or less than others. I was bringing medals and trophies from public speaking and essay/poetry contests to the school display cases several times a year. A loner, books became my intimate friends. I developed an annoying habit of correcting grammar usage with anyone at the refectory table and even with Father Farrell in the confession box. “What about me?” I asked Francesca. “I thought of you. I did. I wasn’t sure you’d be interested or could find the time. There would be a timeline that must be met. Send me something. Something short. Something that would indicate to me that you understand the form of a libretto.”
Summer 2015 at Glimmerglass Festival, Eric Owens was singing Verdi’s Macbeth, directed by Francesca, and I was directing the American premiere of Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica. We found ourselves, two black men, outraged by the more than usual rise of unarmed black boys and men shot by white police officers. We, of course, had our own personal stories of racial profiling that we shared as we failed to understand why and what was happening to our black brothers. Who’s next? Rather than submitting samples of previous work, I emailed Francesca in a matter of days a sample of two proposed scenes for a new opera, set in Harlem, where I was born and now live: A married black couple expecting a boy child and fearing the challenges and obstacles this living moving target would endure navigating his way through life; plus a scene of the mother-to-be and the reunion of her girlfriends, astonished that she is with a struggling saxophone player about to start a family.
Impressed enough, ’Cesca instructed me to send the samples to Jeanine Tesori, who Francesca had picked to compose this commission. After reading my samples, Jeanine and I met over an avocado toast breakfast at an upper Broadway eatery. It was a match. Days later, ’Cesca, at her West Village apartment, set a series of deadlines for us, from December 2015 through opening day of the 2019 Festival. Nine months later, I produced a first draft.
Inspiration and the impossible
I recalled my favorite essayist/novelist, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestseller Between the World and Me, and from my teenage years, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promise Land. I held them upright in front of me, like vanity mirrors reflecting my image in the pages of these great tomes as inspiration. Baldwin from his book says to me, “ You have to do the impossible. You have to do the impossible.” I consulted with friends, black and white: Having a boy, do you prepare that child for what you anticipate will await him in life? Do you have “the talk” with him on how to survive and thrive from day to day? All black parents: yes. White parents: it never even enters their orbit.
This is how the first draft of the opera’s story started: Harlem. An African-American family and community torn apart when an unarmed teenager is killed by a police officer. Principal characters are a Father, a saxophonist, Mother, who owns a restaurant, Son, who is a student activist interested in art and poetry, a Minister, three Mothers and a chorus of 30 black youth (boys) 8–18, representing other murdered boys who attempt to make sense of the world they left through music and dance.
’Cesca was in San Francisco directing Aida; I was guest directing and teaching the fall semester at Dartmouth College; so we arranged a phone meeting for October 31, 2016. My notes from the call: ’Cesca: Here are my thoughts so far from this initial draft. Jeanine is happy with what she’s read. If she’s happy, I’m happy. I happen to like it very much as well. I am drawn in immediately to the people and the story and the setting. I love how the parents discover the fate of their son. The moment is powerful. I love the three Girlfriends; they are so full of life. They literally jump off the page. I’d like The Mother to have an aria. I hope The Father has more; he should be the star. I come back to this: Should The Son be on stage? (Note: At this point in the development of the libretto, The Son was only spoken of, never seen. Indeed this later changed.) Your writing is poetic and raw. Of the culture vernacular. Humorous and moving. I think you’ve a real future as a librettist, if you want to go in that direction. The format you send is messy, please send PDF. Try, if possible, not to take on too much a year out. I’m in touch with companies and some interest is showing after life at Glimmerglass.
Cut the cliché
Many drafts later, as Jeanine and I met and she began to hear musical themes, and with ’Cesca’s tough incisive notes ever present, an evolution occurred. I learned how to edit rambling sentences of emotional blather to select bites to allow the music to enter; use of counterpoint and the dramatic musical effect of repeating lines and playing active verbs; writing duets, trios, arias. It was a magnificent overwhelming education with my collaborative “Professor Tesori.”
Moreover, important and memorable, a morning meeting in the Carlyle Hotel at which both ’Cesca and Jeanine offered these notes after a much revised draft: Get rid of the boys chorus. Take away the cliché of a struggling black jazz saxophone player. Jeanine: “What about the father being a cop?” Me: “Absolutely not. I don’t want to, nor do I have the desire, interest or skills to write about a black police officer. Forget it.” There were myriad other notes…but I began to already betray my oath to not have a black police officer as the father. I recognized the irony, the tension, the glittering possibilities of personal conflict and heartache of a father whose son is murdered by a fellow officer. Brilliant, Jeanine!
I set about to interview black police officers. ’Cesca introduced me to one in D.C., who was leaving the force to become an actor. He was a super in WNO’s production of Dead Man Walking, and I hired him as a moving man in my production of Raisin in the Sun at Arena Stage, which I was directing at the time. I also consulted with a Harlem police officer whose relationship with his teenage son was, in his words, a disaster; the son was embarrassed and appalled that his dad worked for and with “the man,” the enemy. That conflict made its way into the opera in a significant way. I introduced three black police officer buddies in a bar scene. For the Harlem police officer, life insurance coverage and dental for the entire family was a major seduction in becoming a cop. That’s in the opera. After a very strong suggestion from Jeanine, and later echoed by ’Cesca, I wrote the character of The Son into the libretto. Although spoken of in all eight scenes, The Son had thus far never appeared. I originally found that intriguing, allowing the audience to form a picture of the boy for themselves from the composites sung from the stage. He would be 16. A student and political activist interested in art and poetry. At odds with his police officer father. For this new revision, I wrote a long scene (it remains the longest in the opera) where The Father and Son have an extremely personal clash about who they both are to each other and how the world sees them as black males.
Two dinosaurs fighting for territory, dominance, control, understanding, love, respect.
Be more specific
From ’Cesca: “Great to have the boy in the opera. Thank you. He is no longer a stage direction. Make him less iconic. Be more specific. Depth. More characteristics. More special.” Me: “I really want him to be an ordinary black teenage boy, if there is such a thing in America. By making our boy very special and too specific, do we place him on a pedestal and detract that it really can be any black boy — truant or saint or scholar or son of a black cop — it does not matter; his life is in danger and he is feared by others. Will we in the process lose the ‘every/any’ black boy theme of the piece?” ’Cesca: “These are all good things. I do not think we lose the ‘every and any boy’ side of him, even if he is good. But I am sure there is a dark side, and maybe we find it out in the process. We need more of a surprise.” Me: “I’ll explore further. A surprise somewhere, yes. But not a dark side. I don’t want any hint that this boy walked even on the edge of something dark, cloudy, secretive, unknown, and deserved his fate.” The opera has developed into two acts. A prologue; act one, four scenes; act two, three scenes; and an epilogue. Ten characters. I began to attach new titles with each draft: No Name Necessary; Black Boy; Blue Black; Black is Blue. ’Cesca: “I don’t think the title is there yet.”
A black man in blue
Me: “The opera opens and the first image we see is a black man, our central character, The Father, changing from his civilian look into his police officer “blues.” We next see him in his “blues” when he visits his wife and newborn son in the hospital. He is in his “blues” in the big confrontation scene with his son that ends act one; The Son points up the dichotomy of a black man in a blue police officer’s uniform. Both police officers I spoke to referred to their uniform as “blues,”/ “when I’m in my blues.” I’m suggesting as a title: BLACK IN BLUE. Jeanine: “I like this title. But I wonder if there is another one that might be not as bald and easily mistaken for Black And Blue or Black ‘N Blue… I wonder if we should keep that as a working title and keep dreaming. Maybe just BLUE. Don’t know. Will keep at it.” Me: “Further thinking, BLACK IN BLUE is all the things you stated and in a way without hope, dark, dangerous, blatant. I do like BLUE. It can be open to interpretation, mood, the uniform or kind of day, etc. I’m for BLUE.”
Francesca: “I follow your leads.”
Photos from the BLUE workshop, August 2018: Kenneth Kellogg, who will star in the
world premiere as The Father, performed with Martin Luther Clark as The Son, Ariana
Douglas as The Nurse, and Ariana, Amber Monroe and Zoie Reams as the Girlfriends.
Photos: Karli Cadel
BLUE featured on the Breaking Glass podcast
The latest episode of the Breaking Glass podcast features conversations centering on the issues that influenced the composer and librettist of BLUE. Listen here: https://radiopublic.com/breaking-glass-GmRjKw/ep/s1!982fd
First workshop of BLUE
August 25, 2018 – Cooperstown, NY
Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello of The Glimmerglass Festival introduces the invited audience of industry leaders and Festival artists and staff to the first workshop and sing-through of BLUE by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson. Also, in attendance are members of the BLUE production team including the Set Designer Donald Eastman and Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel. The workshop cast brought together 8 young artists from around the US and principal artist Kenneth Kellogg who will sing the role of THE FATHER in the world premiere on July 14, 2019.
BLUE and BREAKING GLASS NEWS
Followers! For more information about BLUE and to hear conversations with the creators and artists about the contemporary social issues in opera today, please listen to the BREAKING GLASS PODCAST – debuting August 4, 2018 wherever you download your favorite podcasts. BREAKING GLASS NATIONAL FORUM livestreamed conversations are available now at glimmerglass.org/breaking-glass where you can also subscribe to hear more about The Glimmerglass Festival and the upcoming podcast.
The Glimmerglass Festival has commissioned composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson to write a new opera about race in America, entitled Blue, which will be given eight world premiere performances throughout July/August 2019, in the Festival’s 900-seat opera theater. Blue brings audiences into the emotional epicenter of an African-American couple — a father and a mother — who lose their teenage son when he is killed by a police officer. The opera is inspired by contemporary events and Black literature, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and focuses on the joys and sorrows of bringing a child into a world in which African-American families are forced to question if their sons’ lives matter.
Blue is the Festival’s 13th commission. Although Glimmerglass offers a wide range of music each season, the production and presentation of new and recent American work is an anchor of the company’s programming. With this commitment, Glimmerglass has progressively focused on creating seasons intended to spark important conversations about today’s world by braiding together mainstage repertory and ancillary programs that delve into the difficult and sensitive process of transforming news-making real-life issues into opera.
Composer Jeanine Tesori on Blue: “When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I also thought about James Baldwin and how race isn’t represented on the musical stage as much as I’d wish, and that it implicates all of us. I also thought about the concrete reality that [African-American] librettist/director Tazewell Thompson shared, of being patted down by the police, of the look in the eye of a cop who stepped in front of him while he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in a protest march. The policeman said to him, ‘So what are you going to do?’ What can you do? Our response can be ‘to make work.’ The abstraction of music and the epic quality of the operatic voice as a foil to the all-too-real state of race politics in the United States is a combustible combination. There is power in the musical story of a family, of a Black man leading his family. No men in jail, no slaves — just a Black man; the musical searching for hope versus reality; and the right every human being has to be safe in his or her own body. There is a deep history of that lack of safety and an imperative of hope that we must keep in the conversation.”
Pictured: Bass Kenneth Kellogg, who will sing the role of “The Father” in Blue, with his son, born October 2017. The cast for the world premiere production also includes internationally-renowned bass-baritone Eric Owens. Sets will be by Donald Eastman, costumes by Jessica Jahn and lighting by Robert Wierzel.
Start and End Dates
07/07/2019 — 08/31/2019
Cooperstown, New York