COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – In reflecting on Jeanine Tesori’s eloquent and gritty new opera Blue, which received its world premiere in July at the Glimmerglass Festival, I couldn’t help thinking of Leonard Bernstein, master of that distinctively American art form, the musical. To this day, Bernstein as a composer for the stage is defined and boxed in by West Side Story. Never mind that he also wrote real operas; so keenly did Bernstein feel the onus of West Side Story that he tried to force his paragon of musicals into operatic costume through a misbegotten recording with opera singers. If one can judge by Blue, it seems highly unlikely that Tesori, also a tremendous presence on Broadway, will find herself similarly constrained as an opera composer manqué.
Tesori’s high-profile musicals include the scores for Fun Home, Shrek The Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Caroline, or Change. None of those edge near the heated, raw tragedy of Blue, an all-too-familiar episode in the lives of African Americans still trying to find acceptance, usefulness, even mere safety in a culture dominated by white people – on streets regulated by white police.
The libretto by Tazewell Thompson, who also directed the production, is American verismo: raw in its directness, devastating in its honesty. The Father (he has no other name) is a black cop, seemingly embraced by his fellow “officers of the law,” the term the father requires. He and his wife (The Mother) are about to have their first child. Her three best girlfriends hail the news, only to turn aghast when she tells them it’s going to be a boy. Heartbreak lies that way, they warn her at great length.
The father’s fellow cops, on the other hand, raise their beers to the father of a son; they just want to know how he did it (in the usual way, he replies). No, no. How did he bring forth a son? All they’ve been able to produce are girls.
The story leaps forward sixteen years, where the universal conflict between generations is exacerbated by the circumstances of this household. The Son, by now a fledgling artist and social activist, wishes his dad were anything but a cop. Why did he feel he had to suck up to white society like that? The father bears resentment of his own toward the son: Why does he keep getting into trouble, why doesn’t he pull up his sagging pants, turn his hat around straight, get rid of the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie? And why did he jump that turnstile? Because, the son replies, New York is the richest city in the world, and transportation should be free.
Act 2: The son is dead, shot by a fellow officer of the law. The mother is stupefied. The father is enraged at “the cop” who killed his beloved son and plans to exact revenge; an eye for an eye. He goes to see The Reverend, to tell him exactly that. The reverend addresses the angry man as “My son.” “I am not your son.” Then, “My brother.” “I am not your brother.” It’s a brilliant riff by librettist Thompson because the next line surely gives the father the shaft of saving light he so desperately needs. Twice rebuffed and now searching his own soul, the reverend finally answers gently that he regards all men as his brothers. The reverend’s ensuing speech reaches the father – if only momentarily – and a glimmer of understanding, clarity, and calm has broken through. Though the father Father exits in a huff, he leaves a metaphor of his first rage behind him in the room, in the reverend’s hands.
In effect, Blue closes with two final scenes: the son’s funeral, where father and mother have reconciled themselves to their sad reality, and then a sort of wistful epilogue, a fanciful do-over in which the son happily consumes the breakfast his mother has made amid suggestions that his life will turn down a quieter, more conventional path – after just one more peaceful demonstration.
Tesori’s tone painting subtly blends whiffs of jazz, blues, and soul within a singable, engaging, and smartly expressive score that is unselfconsciously consonant. Blue begins as comedy worthy of Mozart or Rossini in the taut, brisk, bright quartet of women celebrating the mother’s announcement, which devolves into a cautionary trio dripping with irony. Likewise, the father’s mirror-image quartet with his fellow cops makes for delightful musical (hmm, make that operatic) fun. The downward shift in mood is sure and steady, credible and dreadful.
As The Father, bass Kenneth Kellogg brought a huge, well-managed voice to a sharply focused acting performance. His extended, fuming exchange with The Son (the technically agile, appropriately petulant tenor Aaron Crouch) was as daunting as it was melancholy to witness. No less captivating was Kellogg’s powerfully voiced confrontation with The Reverend (a responsive and vocally stalwart stand-in effort by bass Nicholas Davis at the performance I heard on July 29). Mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter floated Tesori’s lyrical music with effortless brio as the pregnant Mother, but she also put a heartbroken visage on the woman whose still-flowering “baby” was erased like so many others.
Both supporting trios – Ariana Wehr, Brea Renetta Marshall, and Mia Athey as the girlfriends, with Aaron T. Jenkins, Edward Graves, and Camron Gray as the cops – jumped in with fetching comic esprit. Designer Donald Eastman’s minimal, mobile sets allowed for rapid scene changes without obstructing the narrative flow. Conductor John DeMain led a performance by singers and orchestra that reveled in Tesori’s elegant stylistic lacework.
Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.