Blue, an opera about race in America, debuts at Seattle Opera

United StatesUnited States Jeanine Tesori, Blue: Soloists of the Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony / Viswa Subbaraman (conductor). McCaw Hall, Seattle, 26.2.2022. (ZC)

Kenneth Kellogg and Briana Hunter in Blue © Philip Newton

Librettist and Director – Tazewell Thompson
Sets – Donald Eastman
Costumes – Jessica Jahn
Lighting – Eric Norbury

The Mother – Briana Hunter
The Father – Kenneth Kellogg
The Son – Joshua Stewart
The Reverend – Gordon Hawkins
Girlfriend 1/Nurse/Congregant – Ariana Wehr
Girlfriend 2/Congregant – Ellaina Lewis
Girlfriend 3/Congregant – Cheryse McLeod Lewis
Policeman 1/Congregant – Camron Gray
Policeman 2/Congregant – Korland Simmons
Policeman 3/Congregant – Joshua Conyers

Opera has always been attached to social and popular trends. It is, in a sense, the original musical theater: an attempt to synthesize dramatic storytelling, instrumental music and singing into a unified grand artistic statement. So, what does opera look like in the first two decades of the twenty-first century? Blue, a recent opera by librettist Tazewell Thompson and musical theater composer Jeanine Tesori, provides us with one concise answer to this question.

Blue began as a 2015 commission from Upstate New York’s Glimmerglass Festival, which sought to create an opera exploring race in America today. The project paired Thompson, who had directed several festival productions, with Tesori, who had composed the music for another Glimmerglass commission, A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck. Blue received its debut performance in the summer of 2019, but COVID shelved plans for the opera to tour – until now.

Thompson’s libretto follows a family raising a Black son in New York City’s Harlem. The characters are known to the audience only by their titles: ‘Father’, ‘Mother’, ‘Son’ and so on.  The opera opens with The Mother, played by Briana Hunter, explaining to her trio of Girlfriends that she has quickly fallen in love, married and is now pregnant. Swooning and playful teasing about The Mother’s new beau is upended when the Girlfriends learn he is a police officer – and that she is expecting a son. In these moments the crux of the opera’s drama is established as they warn her about the dangers her Black, soon-to-be son will face. In a parallel scene, three fellow officers tell The Father, played by Kenneth Kellogg, that they envy him for fathering a son – setting up the coming disconnect between The Father’s expectations and reality.

The next scene jumps 16 years into the future, where we spend the rest of the opera. The Son, portrayed by Joshua Stewart, is now a rebellious teen, passionate about his art and social activism. He resents his father’s profession and, in an argument, The Father struggles to explain how he is trying to keep his son alive. Act I closes with the two embracing: The Father is emphatic that, despite their differences, he loves his son.

The second act opens with the characters plunged into tragedy, and we soon learn The Son has been murdered by a police officer while attending a political rally. The Father reaches out to Gordon Hawkins’s The Reverend for comfort. For a few moments we are led to believe that The Father has adopted some of The Son’s anger and plans to seek vengeance against the police officer who murdered his son. Instead, The Mother and The Father bury and mourn their son, and an epilogue shows the three sharing a meal before The Son is shot. The opera closes without resolution.

Tazewell’s ambitious libretto tries hard to make its points but, in the process, stifles Blue’s characters by failing to imbue them with texture, depth and nuance. They are given superficial treatment. The story is free of almost any action or conflict as the characters are shifted from one set piece to the next, and the leap of 16 years leaves little time to establish either place or purpose.

A pivotal decision to make The Father a police officer rather than a jazz musician, as Thompson originally wanted, added very little to the opera’s overall effect. Blue could have been an exploration of the contradictions and tensions of a Black police officer raising a son, but too much precious time is wasted to adequately flesh these ideas out. There are glimmers of what could have been during the argument-to-embrace scene between The Father and The Son at the end of the first act, and the opening scene of the second one with The Father’s bitter and grief-stricken tirade with The Reverend.

Tesori draws on the orchestra’s many colors and moods to great effect in her score. (It is given full value by the Seattle Symphony under Viswa Subbaraman). It supports the story in lush strokes without becoming the focus of our attention. I wish Tesori had made more of an effort to give Blue a musical identity; instead, the music functions like incidental music for a play. She saves her best for the second act, when Blue’s characters inhabit their grief. An especially powerful scene occurs when The Father and The Mother, in church for their son’s funeral, are joined by the congregation as they sing about the universal tragedy of Black families losing sons to police violence.

The draw of Blue – more than the timeliness of its subject – is Seattle Opera’s strong cast driven by Kellogg, Hunter and Hawkins. By assigning baritone, mezzo-soprano and bass voices to the primary characters, Tesori imbues each with complexity and gravity. Kellogg’s firm bass gives The Father a seriousness which also puts him at emotional distance from The Son. In contrast, Hawkins’s rich baritone conveys an enveloping warmth, driving Act II’s aching mood. And Brianna Hunter is a determined mezzo with a voice that exudes both hope and deep pain.

Seattle Opera deserves credit for staging Blue. The opera world needs more diversity on stage, and Blue delivers. What is unclear is whether an opera with the primary objective to make a statement about race in America – and specifically regarding police violence – is durable enough as structured to remain as a fixture in opera houses. While other Black opera artists like Anthony Davis and Terrance Blanchard look to the past for inspiration, Thompson and Tesori have chosen the uncertainty of the present day. This is a risk worth taking, especially if it continues to bring together such a fine cast of singers.

Zach Carstensen

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