The opera, which the Washington National Opera opens Sunday at the Kennedy Center, dramatizes a modern tragedy: police violence against young black men. A family in Harlem raises a son and is then left to grieve and cope after he is shot and killed by a police officer. It’s a story in which opera’s stylized, ritualistic nature and its ability to make emotion almost unbearably real are in constant orbit.
On a recent Friday morning at WNO’s rehearsal space in Takoma Park, Md., four women are running through their first scene from “Blue”: a reunion of girlfriends in Harlem. Ariana Wehr, Simone Paulwell and Rehanna Thelwell celebrate that Briana Hunter’s character is pregnant, then turn into a consolidated chorus of admonition when they find out that the child is a boy.
This scene is emblematic of how “Blue” moves easily between the art form’s conceptual and heartfelt aspects. The opera is, on one level, archetypal — the characters are known only as the Father (Kellogg), the Mother (Hunter), the Son (Aaron Crouch). But the characters are also particular: the Mother, determined and entrepreneurial; the Father, himself a police officer, navigating and rationalizing his place in the community; the Son, an aspiring artist, sensitive and rebellious. And the story moves into the specific places where community happens — kitchens, bars, churches.
For librettist Tazewell Thompson, that was part of the point.
“I wanted to write about how it affected the family themselves. That’s the story you really never read. You read about the victim,” Thompson says. “But you don’t hear about where the boy came from, what his community was like, what church he attended. What were his mother and father like? What was his home life like?”
Thompson says he was terrified when Francesca Zambello, artistic director of WNO and Glimmerglass Festival (which premiered “Blue” in 2019), asked him to write the libretto. As a theater director, he had written and produced plays about African American history — about the journalist and activist Ida B. Wells and the Fisk Jubilee Singers — but never a libretto. Still, Thompson had his own operatic background.
“Opera came into my life as a child even before I knew about Negro spirituals or blues or jazz or gospel,” he says. As a child, Thompson lived at a home run by the Sisters of St. Dominic in Blauvelt, N.Y. Twice a week, one of the nuns would “wheel in a cart with a record player and records that she got from the Longines Symphonette Society,” he says. “And they were all operas.” The other students were bored; Thompson was entranced.
As for “Blue,” Zambello asked him for a story about race. Thompson wanted to do something about the current world, reflecting in part his own experiences — whether being “the only person of color in the room” in his early theater career or being “a man walking in America while black.” And it’s a story he wanted to get right. (At rehearsal, a meeting with the costume and makeup designers turns into a discussion about whether Kellogg can have a beard. Thompson thinks not, based on his own encounters with police.)
Thompson also drew on his experience as an opera director — in particular, Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (“my favorite opera,” he says). It’s about nuns in 18th-century France, finding their faith and their lives threatened by the revolution outside their walls.
That might seem a long way from the 21st-century Harlem of “Blue,” but “Dialogues,” too, reflects on how state-sanctioned violence affects a community, and how individuals try and fail to keep those forces at a distance.
Kellogg, a black man and the father of a black son, says he acutely feels the story’s emotional burden.
“I’m literally facing my fears every day of rehearsal,” he says. “The pressure I feel and the weight I feel to tell this story is unlike any other I’ve ever experienced because it means so much to my community. It’s a steep price. But it’s what I’m willing to pay.”
And, he adds, “I’ve seen a large return.” In the Glimmerglass production, Kellogg’s son made a brief appearance as a younger version of the son in the story. On their days off, the two would walk around the nearby town of Cooperstown, N.Y., where they saw the opera’s impact.
“People would literally come up to us and be in tears, shaking hands, saying thank you,” Kellogg says. “Because the opera gave them some insight, and it opened up some level of empathy and understanding that they hadn’t reached before.”
Tesori, the composer, says she approached the task in part by considering the oldest and most valuable currency in any theater: applause.
“We take it for granted that there is what we call in theater a button, and then everyone claps,” she says. “And I think, okay, it’s a release or something. There’s this catharsis. It goes back to the Greek plays. And that, to me, is what I’m constantly trying to bring inside the art form.”
Tesori has moved freely between musical theater and opera, with her musical-theater work often using elements and evocations of musical genre and style as prisms, revealing characters through the music of their environment.
“Caroline, or Change,” for instance, a show being revived on Broadway this spring, is immersed in the music of its time and place; Tesori’s latest show, “Soft Power,” a collaboration with playwright David Henry Hwang, uses Broadway styles and tropes to deconstruct the current political moment. But, she says, “with opera, I don’t do that at all.”
“Blue” is a chance to work from the inside out. “To me,” she says, “it’s the idea of who is this character, not what are they listening to, but what is their interiority. I don’t really care what they’re listening to. I care that we listen to them.”
The words spark the music; the music colors the words. In “Blue,” every character has their complicated say. “We’ve tried to leave room for the way that I think justice and equity really, really work,” Tesori says, “which is at the level of being around the table, where you get to radically empathize with someone else.”
For everyone involved, it seems, “Blue” has been hard and hopeful work, a journey toward some measure of the catharsis of which Tesori speaks.
“It was painful to write,” Thompson says. “It took every part of me to express what I wanted this story to be about. It emptied every particle, every artery of my entire system to do it. But in the end, I felt — what’s the word? Rejuvenated.”
Blue Sunday through March 28 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.