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The New York Times: BEST CLASSICAL MUSIC OF 2019
The New York Times, By ANTHONY TOMMASINI, Dec. 4, 2019
A Year of Relevance
Though it was just a coincidence of planning, the summer seasons of both Opera Theater of St. Louis and the Glimmerglass Festival, in Cooperstown, N.Y., featured premieres of powerful new operas about contemporary struggling African-American families. This double, original and timely triumph was one of the most encouraging developments of the year in classical music.
The composer Jeanine Tesori, best known for her Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home,” and the librettist-director Tazewell Thompson tell the story of a striving black family in Harlem with a rebellious teenage son who’s incensed over police intimidation of young black men. In a twist, the devoted but flummoxed father is a police officer. Ms. Tesori’s strong yet subtle score is combined with Mr. Thompson’s grimly elegant and snappy words — one of the best librettos I’ve heard in a long while.
WSJ: “A remarkably original opera”
The Wall Street Journal
By Heidi Waleson
Aug. 14, 2019 4:19 pm ET
Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson ’s “Blue,” commissioned and given its world premiere by the Glimmerglass Festival this season, is a wrenching and remarkably original opera that explores deeply personal emotional truths and gives them universal resonance. It is the tale of one family’s devastating loss—the teenage son of a black police officer and his wife is shot and killed by a white police officer—but it is actually the story of an entire community. Structured like a Greek tragedy, it skillfully uses ensembles to build a sense of ritual around the story. The characters have no names (they are the Father, the Mother, the Son) and the killing takes place offstage, between the two hour-long acts. Act I is a deep dive into the complexities of familial love and struggle; Act II shows how one violent act challenges the foundational beliefs of those left behind.
Mr. Thompson’s unflinching libretto avoids political posturing yet clearly exposes the underlying predicament. Three Girlfriends, learning that the Mother is pregnant with a boy, recoil in horror, and remind her, in a jazzy ensemble: “Thou shalt bring forth no black boys into this world.” (The Girlfriends are a cross between fairy godmothers and Fates—they offer blessings as well as warnings.) At the funeral, the Father, mad with grief, recites the terrible litany of parents to their black sons: “Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t carry shiny objects. Don’t get a tattoo….” Yet what is interesting about the opera is how those warnings, rather than signaled, are woven into its fabric, as they are into the lives of the people it is about. Equally compelling is the treatment of religion, which dominates Act II. A source of comfort and community, it is also questioned. In the opera’s most heartbreaking moment, the Mother, standing at the casket, gives her child to Jesus with the same gentle words and music with which she handed him, as a newborn, to the Father—“Cup your hand under his head and neck.” But the Reverend, in the opera’s final moments, asks God, “How many sons do we have to give / Before you can’t hold one more?”
Ms. Tesori’s deeply affecting and disturbing music has just the right weight and gravity for the story. Arias and scenes are emotionally specific, and the various ensemble configurations—the trio of Girlfriends, who support the Mother, and one of Policemen, who are the Father’s colleagues, combine as a potent sextet at the funeral—amplify the opera’s themes. The powerful cast, headed by bass Kenneth Kellogg (Father) and mezzo Briana Hunter (Mother), captured the story’s volcanic upheavals and simple everyday-ness; tenor Aaron Crouch made the Son’s teenage rebellion absolutely believable; and baritone Gordon Hawkins brought dignity and doubt to the Reverend. John DeMain led the incisive orchestra, which embraced Ms. Tesori’s big statements. Mr. Thompson also directed, and his detailed staging, complemented by Donald Eastman ’s simple set (a bleached-out projection of a row of Harlem townhouses, a few roll-on props), Jessica Jahn ’s costumes, and Robert Wierzel ’s lighting, let the characters and the music tell the story.
On Stage: Blue
Listen to librettist and director Tazewell Thompson explore Blue as it plays out on stage.
More than Meets the Eye
Sometimes the story of a piece is more than just the libretto. Donald Eastman, the set designer for Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s Blue, brings a table full of history to the new work. While most of the set is minimalistic, each scene has one statement piece to add depth and character to the setting. Since The Son is an artist, Donald decided to add a drafting table to the design for The Son’s bedroom. When he was not able to find one that had the look he wanted nearby, Donald donated his own to the production. He found this table 40 years ago at an oak furniture store called Wooden Nickel in Greenwich Village.
Donald drafted many of his designs over the years on this table, including his scenery for Fences. Fences was the first collaboration between Eastman and Thompson. Two years ago, Donald worked on a production of Jeanine Tesori’s Tony Award-winning Fun Home at New York University, where he utilized the drafting table as a set piece, in this instance for the main character, Alison Bechdel’s, room.
We find it heartwarming that this table is a link between Tazewell, Donald, and Jeanine.
Review: Police Violence Reaches Opera in ‘Blue’
Anthony Tommasini for the New York Times August 2, 2019
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The new opera “Blue” tells the story of an African-American family in Harlem driven to crisis and tragedy amid the son’s growing outrage over police intimidation of young black men.
Interviews in the program book at the Glimmerglass Festival here, where the work had its premiere a few weeks ago and runs through Aug. 22, reveal a storytelling decision made early on that greatly enhanced the opera’s complexity.
The composer, Jeanine Tesori, best known for the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home,” suggested that the father in the opera should be a police officer — rather than a jazz musician, as in an early draft. At first, the librettist, Tazewell Thompson, resisted. But he eventually embraced depicting the particular agony of a father whose son is killed by a fellow officer.
This wrenching twist is not the only reason that “Blue,” which I saw in its second performance, on July 26, came across as powerful — as well as sadly timely. Drawing on her deep experience in musical theater, her keen ear for elements of contemporary classical music and her abundant imagination, Ms. Tesori has written a strong yet subtle score that avoids the obvious and exudes a personal voice.
Mr. Thompson, who also directed the production, has written one of the most elegant librettos I’ve heard in a long time. The conductor John DeMain drew a vibrant performance from an orchestra of nearly 50 players; the cast was superb. (A chamber version will be presented next year at Washington National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.)
The three main characters are called, simply, the Father, the Mother and the Son. The opera unfolds as a series of conversations among friends and family members over issues of commitment, ambition and everyday injustice in minority neighborhoods. An opera driven by words is perfect for the intimate theater here, which seats just over 900.
At the start, impending tensions are suggested in the orchestra by rumbling percussion, cries from scraped piano strings, and prickly chords that accumulate pitches and linger in the air.
The mood shifts for the lively opening scene, in which the Mother (Briana Hunter, a radiant mezzo-soprano), who is several months pregnant, talks with three girlfriends (Ariana Wehr, Brea Renetta Marshall and Mia Athey) about the husband she loves and the hopes she has for her child. In rapturous yet playful lines, she sings about her man: the bigness of his frame and smile; his head “full of big ideas”; his voice.
“I could pitch a tent and live in the body of that voice,” she sings. The music shifts from jaunty exchanges between the women to passages where the Mother’s fantasy of her family’s future is evoked by plangent, wide-spaced, Copland-esque chords.
The friends gently mock her infatuation. They’re alarmed, however, to learn that her husband is a police officer. “You married a cop?” they ask. And while they try to be supportive, they turn fretful when the Mother says the baby she is bearing is a boy. Nothing but trouble, her friends predict, only half-joking. The Mother asserts that she will keep her boy close and doesn’t care who he ends up being.
In impassioned moments like this, the characters sing soaring vocal lines cushioned by the orchestra. But just when you fear Ms. Tesori is pushing into melodramatic excess, she shifts the mood and surprises you.
The next scene takes place in the hospital after the birth of the boy. The Father (Kenneth Kellogg, a tall, commanding bass) has just seen the boy in a room where everything was white — walls, floors, sheets, nurses. Our “little baby boy,” he sings, was “like a black exclamation point on white linen paper.” He holds his son and vows to protect him.
The Father then visits three fellow black police officers watching a football game at a Harlem bar. “You got a son on the first try,” they say, envious, while kidding him over his burgeoning responsibilities.
The opera flashes forward to a brief scene with a scampering little boy (played by Mr. Kellogg’s own young son, Jayden). Things then become tense when we meet the teenage Son (the young tenor Aaron Crouch, in an arresting performance), a volatile young man in a hoodie who is fixated on his laptop when he’s not arguing with his father.
The Son has been swept up in protests against police intimidation. His father, anger simmering, explains that he and his fellow officers risk their lives to protect their communities. He beseeches his son to do “your art stuff,” be alone, have your friends over. The boy angrily replies that no friend wants to come over with a cop on the premises. “A black man in blue,” the son mutters. “Pathetic!”
Why must his son get involved in protests and try to change the world, the Father asks. “What am I supposed to do?” the boy responds. “Stay alive,” answers his father, who of all people understands the risks of the streets.
Act II, which begins after the Son has been killed by a policeman at a protest — an event we do not see — depicts another strained conversation, this time between the bitter Father and the Reverend (the stentorian baritone Gordon Hawkins), a well-intentioned but pontifical counselor. A funeral scene contains the opera’s most ambitious ensemble writing, with the parents grieving in duet, while other cast members sing plaintive choral strands that hint at atonal rawness yet take melodic flight.
During the final scene, the Son reappears for a family dinner. The Mother has made greens for her son, a vegan, and roast chicken for her husband. The Son boasts that an art teacher thinks his school project might gain him entry to a top design school.
Is this a fantasy of reconciliation? It seemed to me like a poignant memory. There were some nights like this at that dinner table. There could have been so many more.
“An Exceptionally Strong New Opera”- Financial Times
5 Stars from Financial Times
The Glimmerglass Festival in picturesque Cooperstown — best known for the Baseball Hall of Fame — has become a serious upstate New York cultural destination, a status more than sustained since the producer Francesca Zambello took it over.
It currently lasts nearly all of July and August, with four main operas in repertory plus myriad side events. This year’s programme is particularly rich, with Show Boat (Zambello presents classic musicals with full orchestras and no amplification in the acoustically grateful 920-seat Alice Busch Opera Theater), La traviata and two works by living Americans: John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Blue, by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson.
Blue deserves pride of place because it was a commissioned world premiere, and because it is very, very strong. Composer Tesori crosses all known boundaries, from acclaimed musicals (Caroline, or Change; Fun Home) to opera (A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, also commissioned by Glimmerglass and first done in 2011, Zambello’s first season). She also teaches, works in film and television and is now writing a score for the Metropolitan Opera.
Two years ago Zambello asked Tesori and Thompson — a playwright and veteran Glimmerglass producer — for an opera about race in America. Inspired by James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Ta-Nehisi Coates and his own experiences, Thompson has produced a sensitive, poetic libretto.
It tells of a black couple who are thrilled to have a baby boy, despite the warnings of friends who fear the fate awaiting so many young African-American men. The father is a New York City policeman, and between the acts the boy, now a rebellious teenager, is shot dead by a white cop. In the second act the father’s rage and the mother’s despair are gradually consoled with the help of their pastor.
Tesori’s music is eclectic, like so many new operas, but assuredly so. Her orchestration is rich and her vocal lines retain a beauty and eloquence, unlike so many new operas. Occasionally the opera skirts sentimentality, but is mostly loving in the first act and elegiac in the second.
Thompson produces, and does an accomplished job. Donald Eastman’s decor consists of a back wall showing an angled city street façade that shifts colours huntingly, along with roll-on set pieces. John DeMain conducts the 46-piece orchestra surely.
The cast is particularly strong on the distaff side, with the mezzo Briana Hunter both vocally and theatrically affecting as the Mother, and lovely accompaniment from her three apprehensive, supportive girlfriends — Ariana Wehr, Brea Renetta Marshall and Mia Athey. The bass-baritone Kenneth Kellogg acts movingly as the Father but lacks vocal authority; the tenor Aaron Crouch makes a sympathetic but underpowered Son and the baritone Gordon Hawkins sounds frayed as the Reverend.
– John Rockwell
“A timely, riveting, intense, poignant and dramatic two-act opera” – The Daily Gazette
“Blue” is a timely, riveting, intense, poignant and dramatic two-act opera that captures the essence of the too-often occurrence of young black men being shot by police. And in this case, the incident is further exacerbated by the young man’s father being a cop. Tazewell Thompson wrote the lyrical libretto, which is filled with winsome imagery that spoke of community, love, family, food and forgiveness. It’s quite remarkable.
Jeanine Tesori’s score worked hand in glove with that libretto. Sometimes the music undulated with melody like a river of sound; other times it was dark and foreboding, or jazzy and hip. The orchestra under John DeMain was terrific.
Although the score is through-composed, Tesori wrote several aria-type solos that soprano Briana Hunter as the mother and bass Kenneth Kellogg as the father eloquently sang, both with rich tones and great passion. Young Artist baritone Aaron Crouch as the son sang with edge and intensity. Everyone, including the excellent members of the Young Artists Program, was committed, which made their concerns seem believable.
It helped that Donald Eastman’s spare set with few props and Robert Wierzel’s lighting were a background that allowed the story to unfold without distraction. By the end of the second act, tears were flowing from several in the capacity crowd. But an epilogue told us what had happened to the son. The show ended in silence.
The crowd spontaneously jumped to its feet, cheering and clapping loudly.
– Geraldine Freedman
“A searing examination of race, identity, and the fraught relationship between communities of color and law enforcement” – Parterre Box
This weekend, sandwiched between a persuasive production of The Ghosts of Versailles and a routine revival of La Traviata, the Glimmerglass Festival premiered a searing examination of race, identity, and the fraught relationship between communities of color and law enforcement. Blue, with a score by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Tazewell Thompson (who also directs), brings the joy and terror of raising – and being – a young Black man in America to the opera stage.
This art form has always been political, but composers of the past often camouflaged their messages in stories of the ancient world and scenarios that transported audience to far-flung locales. To sit in an auditorium in upstate New York and confront a work that mirrors the world shown on the news every night feels particularly urgent.
In fact, “urgent” is the first word sung, as a trio of Girlfriends (sopranos Ariana Wehr and Brea Renetta Marshall and mezzo Mia Athey – all members of the Glimmerglass Young Artist Program and all singers to watch) descend upon their best friend, the soon-to-be Mother (mezzo Briana Hunter).
That “urgent” happiness they express at their friend’s pregnancy turns to worry when Mother reveals she is carrying a son. “Thou shalt bring forth no black boys into this world,” they cry in unison, knowing too well the dangers of raising a child who might become a target.
Father (bass Kenneth Kellogg) and his friends (tenors Camron Gray and Edward Graves and baritone Nicholas Davis) receive the news differently, engaging in straight-man backslapping and congratulating the papa for siring a boy on the first try. They are all policemen and men of color, a complicated duality that largely remains unspoken throughout their revelry. But it will eventually form the conflict, and the tragedy, of the piece.
The baby grows into an activist, played as a teenager by tenor Aaron Crouch, who is ashamed that his father proudly calls himself an “Officer of the Law.” The fear first verbalized by the Girlfriends rises into Father’s throat as his boy commits himself to protest culture and civil disobedience. He is now “a walking, moving target” for the very people Father calls his brothers in blue.
Inevitably, Father’s worst fears are realized. In the style of classical drama, Thompson keeps the tragedy offstage, focusing instead on its aftermath in the tense second act. The real story – the palpable heartbreak – lies with how people endure the hardest moments of their lives.
Yet the work also doesn’t shrink from overt ideological sentiment. In a moving confessional scene between Father and a Reverend (baritone Gordon Hawkins, stirring and in firm, fine voice), the long-simmering questions of balancing an officer’s identity with a Black man’s life-experience boils over. “My name doesn’t change who I am to others who see me under a name they’ve given me,” Father sings, acknowledging – for the first time – the truth embedded in his son’s teenage cynicism.
Kellogg projects the conflicted emotions of a man whose entire self was swept away in one moment, in the aftermath of one action. At times I questioned whether Thompson could have gone further in addressing questions of racism and policing head-on, but Kellogg’s impassioned performance deepens the material in the spots where it merely skims the surface level. His deep, commanding voice communicates the authority of his position, but he manages to lighten his tone in tender moments with his wife and son.
Hunter has less to work with as Mother, disappearing for long stretches of the opera as the creators focus on the central male relationship. Yet she too imbues her solos with ecstasy and anguish as the moment demands. Her trajectory from the hopeful future she imagines in the opening scene – a successful business owner, a loving marriage, a happy family – to the grim reality that seals her fate years later is shattering. The sweetness in her supple lyric mezzo belies a glint of steel.
Crouch – a singer I’ve regularly encountered at the Curtis Institute, where he studies – is the only casting misstep. He is affecting as an actor in his two brief scenes, projecting the certainty of youth in rebellion against authority. But although he bills himself as a tenor, his voice continues to develop in a baritonal direction, and high notes are becoming hard-won. The hooded quality to his sound also doesn’t offer enough contrast with Kellogg’s sonorous bass.
Tesori’s score is not particularly inventive, but it is frequently effective. She folds distinctly American idioms – jazz, bebop, blues – into a sweeping, chromatic musical language, with each change in style representing a change in mood. Tense piano arpeggios punctuate an argument between Father and Son, while gospel strains underpin funereal mourning. The final scene – an optimistic fantasy for the future – unspools in bright colors.
Thompson’s production takes a similar approach, with the smart use of projections and minimal scenery (by Donald Eastman), and lighting by Robert Wierzel that manifests emotion and mood. But perhaps the most affecting element of the opera is the silence that envelopes the stage in its final moments. Blue speaks both to our current political moment, and to the long history of racism and police brutality in the United States. It isn’t afraid to linger on the moments of violence that render us speechless.
– Cameron Kelsall
“The struggle to stay alive is at the heart of ‘Blue’” – Albany Times Union
The economy and power of the single-word title “Blue” is indicative of the force and efficiency at work in the new opera by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson. The world premiere performance took place at the Glimmerglass Festival on Sunday afternoon.
The hot button theme is police shootings of African American youth. We never learn the names of the mother, father and son who live in Harlem. The lack of much backstory goes almost unnoticed. What weighs heavily is the day-to-day danger of being a young black man in America.
In the opening scene, three chattering girlfriends coo over the pregnant mother. Hearing that she’s expecting a boy, they turn grim and declare, “Thou shalt bring forth no black boys into this world!” The stoic father is a police officer who has to be coached on how to hold an infant. Act One ends with him and his now-teenage son arguing at length but ultimately finding connection through a long embrace. Act Two is the aftermath of the son’s death at a peaceful protest.
The libretto is urgent and immediate. Thompson, who is African American and also directs, writes with authentic detail and genuine voice. He offers many startling and succinct lines. Another example: “Stay alive. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Rather than mimicking any of the musical styles that could be used to depict black culture, Tesori goes for dignity and nobility. Though the vocal writing is often lively and contemporary, stately brass chords tell us this is more than the passing struggle of any single family. John DeMain conducted the rich score.
Bass Kenneth Kellogg, playing the father, seemed tight and constrained to start. Perhaps that’s his deliberate depiction of a cop. Maybe it’s also a reflection of being a black man, or just an adult male, striving to be temperate in a trying world. In Act II, Kellogg unleashed his full force and fury. An even more startling vocal power came from baritone Gordon Hawkins as the rock solid reverend.
Briana Hunter as the mother led a delightful female ensemble to start and later gave a convulsive and bitter display of anger and grief. As the son, tenor Aaron Crouch sang with appealing clarity, blending together the innocent yet restless faces of youth.
Donald Eastman’s minimal but effective set is a sweeping image of row houses projected onto the back wall. The shadows and hues shift regularly and imperceptivity. Furnishings are few and rather random, except for the son’s imposing white coffin.
– Joseph Dalton
Kenneth Kellogg on Rehearsals:
For the cast of Blue, rehearsals can be very emotional. The characters are often motivated by grief. When Kenneth Kellogg, The Father, posted the above video, he commented:
“Thank goodness this wasn’t filmed on the day I broke down into a full on ugly cry and brought rehearsal to a halt.”
Summer Intern Stephanie Sheeley observed the following after watching some of the tech rehearsals: “you can often see embraces between the actors during breaks on stage. Even though this is a heart-rending process, everyone is walking through this story together. A feeling of community has arisen among the cast, reminiscent of how humanity comes together when we are struck by tragedy.”
The First Rehearsal
Today concludes the first week of rehearsals for Blue. On Monday, we heard from members of the artistic team about their vision for the production. Director/Librettist Tazewell Thompson explained how he began to develop the libretto by interviewing real people who inspired the characters for this opera. Costume designer Jessica Jahn, pictured above, worked to ground the world of Blue in present day America.
“The more specific we can be, the broader we can speak to the experience for the audience.” – Jessica Jahn
She described her artistic goal as making sure the characters are relatable to everyone. Set Designer Donald Eastman elaborated on the minimalist nature of the set that works in conjunction with Jahn’s vision. The backdrop for this show is a forced perspective of a nondescript Harlem street. The facade is placed behind a gauze scrim and becomes a canvas that allows brilliant color and pattern to transform an ominous night street to a sunny morning full of optimism. Eastman set the backdrop to be able to change in mood reflecting the ups and downs through the journey Tazewell Thompson has created.
The New York Times on Blue
The New York Times recently published an article about three operas premiering this year that tackle racism in our country, Blue being among them. We are proud to be recognized as one of the opera companies embracing new repertoire that opens dialogue on injustice.
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