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‘Blue’ is the opera on police violence that America needs to see, but can’t

Kenneth Kellogg as the Father and Aaron Crouch as the Son in the Glimmerglass Festival's 2019 world premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson's “Blue.” (Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival)

The good news is that the Music Critics Association of North America announced Wednesday that composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson are the recipients of its 2020 award for best new opera for their two-act tragedy and breakout Glimmerglass Festival hit, “Blue.” That accolade is well deserved; “Blue” is a triumph.

The bad news — for every opera but especially “Blue” and especially now — is that the work is nowhere to be seen.

Commissioned in 2015 for the Glimmerglass Festival by its general director, Francesca Zambello, “Blue” premiered at Glimmerglass last July under Thompson’s direction, to rave reviews.

But the show’s ascent was as short as it was swift. Just eight performances were given before the coronavirus crisis wiped every arts calendar clean, erasing the show’s scheduled March run at the Kennedy Center by Washington National Opera (Zambello also serves as WNO artistic director), as well as performances slated for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in June and Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in July. (My own viewing of it was limited to an archival video of the Glimmerglass premiere.)

“Blue” paints a wrenching portrait of a black family living in Harlem and torn asunder when their only child — a boy, a dreamer, an activist — is shot dead by one of his father’s white colleagues. That is, a fellow cop.

What may sound like a spoiler is actually the looming aura of inevitability that gives “Blue” its mythic force. Thompson’s lithe, cutting libretto unburdens itself from the documentary obligations of channeling headlines to render the suffering of a single family as something gracefully grave, painfully visceral and often beautiful — a “CNN opera” this is not.

Throughout, Tesori’s luminous score swirls together multiple musical vernaculars into dreamlike textures that shift between moods and modes, blending memory and prophecy.

“Its depiction of the situation of the family, of the moment, is so beautifully done,” says Wall Street Journal classical critic Heidi Waleson in a phone interview. Waleson, along with the critic George Loomis, co-chaired the committee that selected “Blue” for the fourth annual award, which honors both the composer and librettist of an opera premiered in either the United States or Canada. Critics Arthur Kaptainis, John Rockwell and Alex Ross also served on the committee. Past recipients of the honor include Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek for “Breaking the Waves” in 2017, David Hertzberg for “The Wake World” in 2018, and Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins for “p r i s m” in 2019. This year’s runners-up were “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons (presented by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis) and “prisoner of the state” by David Lang (presented by New York Philharmonic).

Waleson felt strongly about “Blue” as soon as the curtains came down at Glimmerglass. “It’s like a Greek tragedy for today. I really think it’s a tremendously important piece,” she said.

These echoes of ancient tragedy haunt “Blue.” Its minimal staging imparts a grand gravitas; it features parallel choruses of gossiping girlfriends and game-watching cops, helpless to derail the course of events, and black suffering at the hands of police is given the scale it deserves. The tragedy is that you know how it ends — which is to say, it won’t.

As such, “Blue” feels more timeless than timely, and more tragic as a result

When Thompson and Tesori first started work on this project, names like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray had already become refrains in global protest chants, affirmations of black lives mattering and bywords for the American epidemic of police brutality.

And even since its premiere last summer (as well as its selection by the award committee in early March), the procession of names has grown to include George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and unreported others.

“ ‘Blue’ was an amazing outlet just for grieving” says mezzo soprano Briana Hunter, who gave a revelatory performance as the Mother at Glimmerglass. “Being in that room with so many amazing black artists, and being able to process the collective trauma that we’ve inherited and that we still experience in the current environment, it became a respite. And singing the role of the Mother — I mean, I get to wail. So every night, it was real for a new reason.”

The national discussion on police brutality anchors itself with names, but “Blue” eschews them entirely. Thompson’s libretto leaves the players nameless — the Father, the Mother, the Son — and the effect is the sense that any black Americans could find themselves cast. It also makes it harder for white viewers to experience “Blue” as someone else’s story.

“If you named her, there’s a lot you could explain away,” says Hunter. “This doesn’t give you the option to do that.”

Creating the opera ‘Blue,’ about police violence against young black men, was hard yet hopeful work

But “Blue” also plays with how easily our roles can change — both the identities we inherit and those we inhabit. When the Father puts on a badge and a hat, he becomes an officer of the law. When the Mother dons a hospital gown and gives birth to her son, she becomes a new version of herself. “I know who I am now,” she sings, “I’m somebody’s mother.” And when the Son wears a hoodie, he becomes, to his father, “a walking moving target.”

The opera deftly separates who we are from how we see one another. And sitting and watching it, especially as a white viewer, it’s difficult not to feel as though you’re playing your own unwitting role as a spectator, bystander, audience to the atrocity.

“Blue” accomplishes all of this while balancing the depth of a mother’s pain, the height of a child’s dream and the weight of a father’s burden.

Tesori credits the “inherent musicality” of Thompson’s language for guiding her through the composition process. “I think that it is my job to make sure that everybody can hear what I think the words are singing when there is no music,” she tells me on a Zoom call with Thompson.

In turn, Thompson, an accomplished playwright and director, credits Tesori for guiding him through writing his first libretto, especially her keen skills as an editor. A key example: Thompson had originally envisioned the Father as a professional saxophonist; it was Tesori’s idea to put him in uniform.

“That was very easy for me to say,” says Tesori. “And that comes from being a white woman, where my relationship to the police is different. I was asking him to re-examine years and years and years of trauma.”

Thompson initially scoffed at the idea. “I kind of blacked out for the rest of the meeting,” he says. “Then I realized how brilliant that idea was.”

Plumbing the pain of his own experiences with police violence, Thompson says, was a confrontation worth having. “Whatever it meant to the audiences and whatever the reaction was,” he says, “I knew that the subject matter did not have a shelf life. I knew that there was no expiration date on it, unfortunately. I didn’t know that right now as the three of us are talking, how present and how incredibly relevant it would be right now.”

Which brings us back to the tragedy around the tragedy: At a time when “Blue” feels more necessary than ever, it’s impossible to experience the work performed in person. And while smaller productions of the opera could be realized, to downsize “Blue” would be to reduce its impact and betray the intentions behind it.

“I absolutely bristle when people say, ‘Can you be in the black box?’ ” says Tesori. “It’s like, no, it [expletive] can’t be in the black box! Don’t do it.” The fully realized production of “Blue” at Glimmerglass featured a 47-piece orchestra. “You could feel in your sternum,” she says, “a visceral reaction that says, ‘Wake up!’ ”

But “Blue” requires more than the immersive volume of an orchestra or the grand scale of an opera house. It demands its place on the stage and within a tradition that for centuries has excluded visions of black experience. Just as opera helped elevate “Blue,” so, too, can “Blue” elevate the future of American opera.

“All of these characters deserve the respect of what opera can bring to this story,” says Thompson. “I want to be sitting in the audience in the dark, gathering with a group of people and, on a lighted stage, hear these 10 people in this opera sing to the heavens. Yell, scream, shout out, proclaim: Here we are! Pay attention! And that’s what opera does.”

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