In a poignant scene during Blue, a compelling new opera that received its premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival on July 14, a woman falls to her knees as she mourns her son. “Bring him back to me” she prays, presenting an all too familiar image of a bereaved parent of color mourning a child killed by police.
Her plea is followed by a mournful melody in the woodwinds and an anguished, surging string section: an evocative moment in the vivid score by Jeanine Tesori. The playwright Tazewell Thompson, a distinguished opera director, contributed the poetic libretto, his first foray into the genre. The story was inspired by conversations with a black police officer in Harlem, whose son deeply resented his father’s work with “the enemy.” The officer told Thompson, who also directed Blue, that he had joined the force partly for benefits such as dental insurance.
The characters in the opera, which is set in Harlem, are nameless throughout. The audience learns why in Act II, when the heartbroken Father (given a nuanced performance by the bass Kenneth Kellogg) sings: “My name doesn’t change who I am to others / Who see me under a name they’ve given me”—referring to an ugly racial epithet.
Blue opens with a wordless prologue in which the Father sits alone on stage against a backdrop of white houses, a simple and effective set by Donald Eastman. Initially clad in sneakers and a baseball cap, the Father changes into a police uniform, accompanied by ominous music that evokes sirens as his colleagues give him a revolver.
In the opening scene, the heavily pregnant Mother – portrayed with intense conviction by the radiant mezzo Briana Hunter – hangs out with her three girlfriends (well sung and acted by Ariana Wehr, Brea Renetta Marshall, and Mia Athey). The four women, wearing chic and colorful outfits by Jessica Jahn, engage in lighthearted banter about the manly attributes of the Father. Joy turns to fear, however, when the Girlfriends learn the gender of the Mother’s child. “Thou shall bring forth no black boy into the world” they sing, each having lost a son to police violence.
In a fraught scene in the Son’s bedroom, the boy accuses his father of betraying their race, percussion underlining their tense dialogue. The Son, a teenage activist (convincingly portrayed by the tenor Aaron Crouch), calls his father the “white man’s dog” and “his lackey.” The Father admonishes his son to call him an “officer of the law,” not a “cop,” and implores him to stay alive.
The Son’s death is not depicted in the opera, which moves straight from the bedroom scene to a harrowing scene in which the distraught Father seeks vengeance. A call for forgiveness by the Reverend, sung by the baritone Gordon Hawkins, is curtly interrupted by the Father’s sarcastic rejection of the faith. (During a pre-performance lecture, Thompson – who was taken into state care as a young child and raised by Dominican nuns, one of whom introduced him to opera – highlighted moments of the libretto that reflect his upbringing: “stormed heaven with prayers,” for example, is a direct quote from a nun.)
Tesori, who has written for Broadway, film, and television, was recently commissioned to write an opera for the Metropolitan Opera. Blue is her third commission from Francesca Zambello, artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival. Tesori’s eclectic score reflects jazz, spirituals, and Puccini, and only briefly veers into sentimentality: for example, during a duet between the Mother and the Father in the hospital scene. John DeMain conducted a taut performance.
Tesori writes flowing lines for solo voice, but her ensemble writing is even more commendable, beginning with the female quartet in Scene 1. During a scene set in a sports bar, the Father tells his police officer pals about his son’s birth, and is welcomed to fatherhood with observations such as, “You are the brand-new warden of baby jail!” Whereas male voices intertwine with comedic panache in that instance, the voices of the three Girlfriends blend with harmonically rich anguish in a scene during which the grief-stricken Mother sits in her nightgown staring out of window, looking for her lost son.
“Enter the sad sorority / Mothers without sons,” the Girlfriends sing. “She wears the captive shroud of stony death / Dressed in forever black,” sings one. “Color of her child” responds another.
A white casket is displayed in the funeral scene. In a long monologue, the Father recounts what a young black man is not supposed to do, the music increasing in urgency as the long list expands from “Don’t wear your ball cap backwards / Don’t wear a hoodie” to “Don’t look the man in his eye / Look the man in the eye.” During a flashback in the Epilogue, the Son describes a peaceful silent protest he will attend that weekend, and invites his father: “Nothing will happen / Nothing,” he sings, his unaccompanied voice descending eerily on the final syllable. His solitude onstage is reminiscent of the prologue, during which the Father similarly sat alone before beginning his fraught transformation to police officer.
Glimmerglass – located near genteel, small Cooperstown, home to the Baseball Hall of Fame – might seem an incongruous location for a Black Lives Matter opera set in Harlem. But a drive through the beautiful upstate New York countryside, now dotted with Trump 2020 signs and Confederate flags, serves as a reminder that Glimmerglass is as urgent a location as any for this politically charged work.
Blue runs through August 22 at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY; glimmerglass.org
Vivien Schweitzer is a music journalist, pianist, and author. Her book A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera was published in September 2018. She is a volunteer ESL and civics teacher at the Center for the Integration and Advancement of New Americans in Astoria.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.