Opera’s Racial Tragedy Transcends Obstacles Of An Open-Air Staging

Kenneth Kellogg as The Father and Krysty Swann as The Mother in Michigan Opera Theater’s production of ‘Blue’ at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre on the Detroit River. (Photos by Mitty Carer)

DETROIT — After nearly two years dark, Michigan Opera Theatre opened its 50th season Sept. 11 and 12 with Blue, Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s 2019 opera about an African-American Harlem family struck by racially tinged tragedy. This should have been the fourth run of the 2019 Music Critics Association of North America Best New Opera Award winner, but the pandemic had other plans. Under new MOT artistic director Yuval Sharon, conductor Daniela Candillari and stage director Kaneza Schaal led an energetic and moving production rooted in community traditions.

This review comes with a big asterisk: The viewing and listening conditions made evaluation of the performance very difficult. The 6,000-seat Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre, a beautiful, partially covered open-air arena on the Detroit waterfront, was built on a location used since the 1980s for jazz and pop concerts. It’s a delightful venue, but its vast size, hard concrete surfaces, and open sides proved acoustically disastrous for opera. The state-of-the-art L-ISA Immersive Hyperreal Sound system made the women’s voices sound screechy, and the orchestra often was barely audible.

The Father (Kenneth Kellogg), right, celebrates the birth of his son with his pals in ‘Blue.’

Worse, from my assigned socially distanced seat (distant from the stage as well), words were impossible to understand, especially in high registers. I couldn’t imagine what the experience was like for a first-time operagoer — the show was vigorously marketed beyond the usual audience base — in the cheaper seats. At intermission, a better seat and instruction in the smartphone subtitle system improved my experience, but hundreds of spectators did not enjoy that advantage.

That said, the production made the most of the setting. The bare stage was hung with 13 tall, narrow mesh panels; 7 across the back of the stage and three at each side. When not used as screens for static, mostly abstract projections (notably the stained glass patterns in the church scene), they allowed glimpses of the 30-piece orchestra seated behind them and the Detroit River beyond. Three ramps extended over the unused orchestra pit toward the audience, expanding the playing space. Boxes, boards, and chairs were brought onstage by cast members and assembled into beds, tables, and bars (sets by Amy Rubin, lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yu, projections by Joshua Higgason).

The Son (Aaron Crouch) is ready for a protest march, much to the chagrin of his father (Kenneth Kellogg).

The leisurely first half of the opera introduces the young family, from pregnancy to The Son’s adolescence (all the characters had generic names only). When The Mother joyfully tells her three girlfriends that she is expecting a son, their delight turns to distress over the fraught prospect of raising a Black boy. In a sports bar, The Father shares his happy news with three fellow NYPD officers, who envy his ability to sire a son. In the hospital, The Father’s initial tentativeness on holding his newborn son quickly turns to wonder and love. Thompson creates believable characters; once I could hear the words more clearly, I was never jolted with awkward or incongruous language. Tesori’s music embraces the text, curving around the language and its emotions; she infuses these first three scenes with easy humor, growing more lyrical for the final scene, which leaps forward 16 years.

The Father and the teenage Son, a budding artist and activist, clash over the boy’s behavior. Especially galling to his policeman father is his rebelliousness toward cops, but The Father still loves him fiercely, and The Son returns his embrace.

In the second part, the emotional temperature and tempo pick up considerably as the mood lurches from love to grief: The Son has been shot and killed at a protest by another cop. In a powerful monologue, The Father expresses his bitter grief to The Reverend, who can barely quell the raging man’s vow of vengeance. The girlfriends gather to support The Mother, immobilized by her deep sorrow, and at the funeral the couple are at last able to comfort each other. The final scene flashes back to the family in happier days and ends with The Son in a quiet but devastating moment of foreshadowing as the parents walk off together. Librettist Thompson’s words about racial injustice are blunt, and the increased intensity inspired Puccinian grandeur from Tesori.

The Father (Kenneth Kellogg) has a heated discussion with The Reverend (Gordon Hawkins).

Kenneth Kellogg anchored the cast gorgeously as The Father. His powerful bass was the perfect expressive vehicle for a good man torn by injustice. Aaron Crouch’s sweet tenor fit The Son’s youth, as did his portrayal of teenage angst. Veteran baritone Gordon Hawkins imbued The Reverend with gravitas and authority (the three men were reprising their roles from the 2019 Glimmerglass premiere). Mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann as The Mother sang lusciously and with dignity. The couple’s six friends provided solid singing and vivid characterizations.

The cast was completed by eight accomplished dancers, most from Detroit, who functioned as extras and danced during the arias and duets. They improvised mostly in Krump and the local Detroit Jit styles, distinctive street-born styles combining sharp, robotic elements and flowing movements. Solos danced on the catwalks translated the singing into visible form, helping to amplify the emotions in the large space. As a regular operagoer and dance enthusiast, I found that the dancing distracted from the singing, but the audience responded enthusiastically.

The Mother (Krysty Swann) attends the funeral of her son with the emotional support of her friends.

With the 30-piece orchestra muffled behind panels at the back of the stage, it was all but impossible to assess the instrumental writing and sound, but Candellari paced the score with sensitivity to the shifting styles of the music. It would be nice to hear more orchestral detail in a space calibrated to the intimate drama.

A new production of Blue directed by librettist Thompson will be performed in Toledo, Seattle, and Pittsburgh in 2022.