A Groundbreaking “Blue” in World Premiere at Glimmerglass

A young black man is peacefully protesting and he is shot and killed by a police officer.

That is the event that is the basis for the new opera “Blue” with music by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Tazewell Thompson who also directed which is receiving its World Premiere at Glimmerglass Festival in a co-production with Washington National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. That event which happens halfway thru the opera informs everything that comes before and after.

(Front) Kenneth Kellogg as The Father
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The evening starts with a complete blackout and when the lights come up there is a black man facing the audience, he moves left and right and at every turn is confronted by a police officer. He strips down and changes into a police uniform himself, his blues. He will later justify his profession to his son by talking of its benefits “including dental.” There is an evocative diagonal line of rowhouses on the upstage screen which is lit differently from the front or illuminating certain windows. Simple set pieces, chairs, tables, a bed are rolled on for each different scene. Fine, effective, simple work by set designer Donald Eastman and lighting designer Robert Wierzel.

The opera is told in a series of conversations with character’s having opposing viewpoints. The first is the expectant Mother (a splendid Briana Hunter) and her girlfriends (Ariana Wehr, Brea Renetta Marshall and Mia Athey) where the joyful news of the impending birth is tempered quite a bit by the news that she’s giving birth to a boy and the girlfriend’s sympathetic anxieties for the dangers he will face and the attendant worries visited on the soon-to-be parents. A favorite rumination from the Mother: “I whisper his name on Lenox Ave/ He hears me on Malcolm X Boulevard/ And comes running home.”

(From left) Mia Athey as Girlfriend 3, Briana Hunter as The Mother, Brea Renetta Marshall as Girlfriend 2 and Ariana Wehr as Girlfriend 1
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The next scene is the Father (a towering, commanding, magisterial and gut-wrenching performance by Kenneth Kellogg) and his cop buddies (Cameron Gray, Edward Graves & Nicholas Davies) in a sports bar. As they sing celebrating touchdowns, I was struck by how appropriately opera works for many modern settings and rituals but especially this one. The choices of scenes and conversation are particularly apt. If the piece itself isn’t especially dramatic as far as action moving the plot forward, the confrontations are thoroughly imagined.

The next two scenes before and after the intermission pull the audience through the wringer in the wrenching coming to terms with life’s choices, a life lived and its loss. The scenes are between the son (a terrific, muscular Aaron Crouch) and after the murder with the Reverend, a powerfully persuasive Gordon Hawkins who counsels the Father that “God has a bucket and a towel and he’s in your corner.”

Kenneth Kellogg as The Father and Aaron Crouch as The Son
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The music by Ms. Tesori (“Fun Home,” “Shrek,” “Caroline or Change”), conducted by John DeMain is constantly engaging, evocative and effective. The libretto by Tazewell Thompson (Former Artistic Director of Syracuse Stage & Westport Country Playhouse, “Constant Star”) continuously caught me with phrases that struck me: “What sins committed by our ancestors that we as a people are made to suffer so,” the oath of an officer swearing to uphold the constitution or the plea “How many sons do we have to give before you can’t hold one more?”

The conversations that happen in the show and during the post-show Q and A or the car ride home. The piece was created to reflect the immediate times in which we live in and portray and respond to the spate of killings of young black men, the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement and the increasingly frequent and more deliberately provocative racist comments emanating from the president and his supporters. One of the questions that I hear at post-show discussions of shows focused on race is whether this piece will have an audience beyond the well-heeled, predominantly white audience that we are in whether its Glimmerglass or Barrington Stage. What lies behind that question? Is there a hope that the piece will get a wider audience or an audience beyond the one in which we sit? Is there a presumption that we don’t need to see this? I’ve felt for a long time that these are increasingly perilous times and the art we choose to consume should reflect, challenge and inform our values. That we are in a foundry and shaping ourselves with our art.

(Clockwise from top) Gordon Hawkins as The Reverend, Briana Hunter as The Mother and Kenneth Kellogg as The Father with members of the ensemble
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Tickets thru 8/22

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