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.
Kenneth Kellogg as the Father and Briana Hunter as the Mother in the Glimmerglass Festival’s 2019 world premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s “Blue.” (Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival)
Throughout, Tesori’s luminous score swirls together multiple musical vernaculars into dreamlike textures that shift between moods and modes, blending memory and prophecy.
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