Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Blown Away by Blue


If there is only one opera that an American citizen could ever see, the Dresser believes fervently that opera, a story about race in America, should be Blue with music by Jeanine Tesori  and words by Tazewell Thompson. This is the opera snatched from the Dresser and the Washington DC community and beyond in March 2020 when Covid closed down the Kennedy Center. At long last, the Dresser saw the Washington National Opera (WNO) production on March 19, 2023.


Since its premiere July 14, 2019, during the Glimmerglass Festival, many young black men or boys have lost their lives in the hands of white police officers. Tazewell’s poignant libretto begins with a teenage Black boy who becomes a policeman. He and his wife birth a son who grows up protesting police brutality. The Son is shot and killed by a White cop. Bass Kenneth Kellogg, a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Performing and Visual Arts who created the role of The Father at Glimmerglass and has performed it consistently in a string of Blue productions across the United States—Seattle Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Toledo Opera, Pittsburgh Opera. Kellogg’s performance, along with Briana Hunter’s as The Mother, stands out for  singing and acting. Hunter is the original mezzo-soprano from the Glimmerglass premiere.


Despite the tragedy of The Boy’s death, this two-hour-and-fifteen-minute work with one intermission and in two acts is well balanced with moments of levity and love. Yet the emotional balance is achieved in the face of racist clich├ęs that label a significant percent of America’s population as “happy Negroes singing spirituals” or “niggers.” While Thompson intends for audience to view his characters as prototypes—no character has a name—their humanity is palpable and deeply moving. When The Mother tells the Girlfriends about how much she loves her husband (The Father) and that they are going to have a baby, a baby boy, they are wary about her husband being police and warn her that a son will be nothing but trouble. Still, they surround her with their loving friendship and are not a Greek chorus of doom.


Likewise, The Father’s fellow officers tease him about how he will become a warden of “baby jail.” Like the Girlfriends, the Policemen show support by letting The Father know they are envious that he will have a son.


Tesori’s music is every bit equal to Thompson’s engrossing libretto. The music is tonal, sometimes jazz inflected, and swells with Copland-like resonances. Often the music is accented with surprising percussion such as celesta and strummed piano strings.


Tesori is a well-known musical composer (e.g., Caroline, or Change, 2003) and WNO produced her children’s opera The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me in 2013. One thing that was disconcerting—Blue is being performed in the Eisenhower Theater where the orchestra pit is too small to accommodate the percussionists. The percussion section was relegated to a remote location. The size of the orchestra pit probably had some influence over WNO’s decision to make this production a chamber version.


Hats off to Tazewell Thompson who also served as the Director. Sets combined projections and furniture moved in and out by the players. The simplicity of the set and the small theater (as opposed to the Kennedy Center’s Opera house) worked very well to create an intimate theater experience. Two performances March 22 and 25 remain. The opera moves next to the English National Opera in London.



Photos by Scott Suchman