Jazz Icon Shorter’s New Opera On Iphigenia Is More Than A Little Iffy

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Singer/bassist esperanza spalding wrote the libretto and performed as one of the Iphigenias. (Photos by Ben Gibbs)

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — For Wayne Shorter, there is no ambiguity as far as his legacy is concerned. He is one of the last living giants of jazz, renowned for his contributions to the jazz standards book (“Speak No Evil,” “Footprints,” “Fall,” “Super Nova,” “Sanctuary,” etc.), crucial creative input in the Miles Davis Quintet and Weather Report, eloquent improvisations on soprano and tenor saxophones, and immense influence on most straight-ahead saxophonists who have come afterwards.

At 88, Wayne — as he is referred to by all in the jazz world — has nothing left to prove. And nothing to lose. So he aimed high and big by trying to compose an opera based on Greek mythology, one that he started writing when he was only 19 but put aside until just three years ago.

With a flourish of eccentric punctuation, the opera is called (…Iphigenia). It has a distinguished pair of main collaborators spanning the generations: Multi-talented singer-bassist esperanza spalding, 37, wrote the libretto, and world-famous architect Frank Gehry, 93, designed the sets. Others got on board as well — Caroline Shaw, Phillip Golub, and spalding added vocal arrangements, the conductor Clark Rundell contributed additional orchestrations to those of Shorter, and three other librettists added texts.

The six Iphigenias with Menelaus (Brad Walker).

It all came to The Broad Stage in Santa Monica Feb. 18 and 19 after debuting in Boston in November and playing at the Kennedy Center in D.C. last December and upstate at Cal Performances in Berkeley Feb. 12.  I caught the Feb. 18 performance, all uninterrupted 100 minutes of it — and I truly regret to report that it’s an ambiguous mess. Alas.

The source is the Euripides play Iphigenia in Aulis, which fueled a chariot-full of operas in the 18th century, most notably that of Gluck — and, in the 20th century, one really funny parody from the quill pen of P.D.Q. Bach, Iphigenia in Brooklyn. (As Prof. Schickele said with a straight face, Most Greek scholars that I’ve talked to seem unaware that Iphigenia ever was in Brooklyn.”). This version goes so far off the track as to include six Iphigenias, all of whom are executed on a stone altar as a sacrifice to appease the goddess Artemis in Act 1 as drunken Greek soldiers stagger around and carry on. But we’re not through with the six, for they come back to life in Act 2 and, in the spirit of women’s empowerment, they ponder which one gets to interrupt the storyline and simply say, no, I’m not going through with this sacrifice.

In Act 3, the sacrifice is replayed — and then, since no one could decide upon an ending, something is improvised in each performance. An “open tense” ending, they call it. There is some justification to this since scholars dispute whether the ending to Euripides’ play is authentically his. So why not do an improvisation, which I think commenced just after Iphigenia’s final sacrifice. The cast sort of wandered off seemingly not quite knowing where they were going as a jazz piano trio played, followed by a chaotic orchestral postlude. “I think I got it,” someone to the left of me remarked. I should have asked him to explain.

Samuel White (Agamemnon) and Brad Walker (Menelaus).

One thing you can say about Shorter’s writing for orchestra is that it has a definite profile, one that is not derivative of anything else that I am familiar with — and in a world full of copycats, there’s a lot to be said for that. Basically, he writes mostly long, winding lines similar to what he used to play on the saxophone in jazz combos and expands them vertically into thick, congested chords for orchestra. Sometimes, Shorter came up with really nice, subtle, lyrical ideas, and there was more dynamic contrast than in past orchestral works of his that I’ve heard. But mostly, I heard turgid, alternately Romantic and modernist, at times tawdry rambling with the singers wordlessly oohing and ahhing a good deal of the time. Often, the vocal lines merely trace those that the orchestra is playing — which is consistent with how the creators say the opera was made: The score came first and the text was written on top of it.

This production used a 28-piece chamber orchestra led by Rundell that, despite being staffed with expert L.A. session pros, sounded scrappy in Act I, though better later on. Sometimes the singers had to bellow in order to be heard over the band. As he has often done when writing for an orchestra, Shorter inserts a jazz combo — a top-notch threesome from his quartet (Danilo Pérez, piano; John Patitucci, bass, Brian Blade, drums; Shorter himself no longer plays in the wake of recent ailments). They underpin the orchestra a good deal of the time and occasionally improvise on their own. Not surprisingly, they provided the most stimulating music, particularly when taking over early in Act 2.

Librettist spalding was one of the Iphigenias, mostly mute at first, but ultimately displaying her pure, lyrical singing voice in a high register in Acts 2 and 3. Samuel White sang Agamemnon in a shrill tenor; Brad Walker’s Menelaus had a powerful baritone. The sets had the unmistakable classic Gehry touch — a forest scrim for Act 1, mounted crumpled-up-paper-like clouds for Act 3.

Set designer Frank Gehry, far left, and composer Wayne Shorter, center, during bows.

Lileana Blain-Cruz directed, sometimes injecting strange silliness into the overwrought war games, amorphous poetry, and the search for the Deep Meaning of it all. In Act 1, when the text seems to mention the abduction of Helen of Troy — the catalyst for the Trojan War — someone streaks across the stage carrying a sex toy. Act 3 starts with an Opera Broadcast Host (Kelly Guerra) doing a standup bit in front of a camcorder. More of that kind of irreverence might have made the whole thing more appealing and even fun. And more of Wayne’s jazz would have helped, too.