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“Nothing to worry about”: Seattle Opera triumphs with emotionally trenchant ‘Blue’

Award-winning new opera by Tazwell Thompson and Jeanine Tesori arrives in Pacific Northwest.

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Emotions ran high and long in Blue, which received a thought-provoking and poignant production from Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall on March 5. A strong cast, guided by the crisp stage directions of Tazwell Thompson (who also wrote the libretto, with music by Jeanine Tesori) superbly amplified the tragic story of an African-American family that lost its only child because of police violence.

Back row, from left: Joshua Conyers as Congregant 3, Cheryse McLeod Lewis as Congregant 3, and Korland Simmons as Congregant 2. Second row, from left: Ellaina Lewis as Congregant 2, Gordon Hawkins as The Reverend, Camron Gray as Congregant 1, and Ariana Wehr and Congregant 1. Front row, from left: Kenneth Kellogg as The Father and Briana Hunter as The Mother. Photo credit: Philip Newton.
Back row, from left: Joshua Conyers as Congregant 3, Cheryse McLeod Lewis as Congregant 3, and Korland Simmons as Congregant 2. Second row, from left: Ellaina Lewis as Congregant 2, Gordon Hawkins as The Reverend, Camron Gray as Congregant 1, and Ariana Wehr as Congregant 1. Front row, from left: Kenneth Kellogg as The Father and Briana Hunter as The Mother. Photo credit: Philip Newton.

Winner of the Music Critics Association of North America’s Best New Opera award in 2020, Blue exposes how difficult it is to raise a Black boy in the United States. The son resents his father, who is a police officer. In the son’s mind, that represents the forces that hold down Black people. Despite his son’s animosity, the father keeps reaching out to him, and the mother struggles to keep the two of them reconciled, but the son is killed by a policeman while participating in a protest march.

The pastor tries to assuage the father, but even at the funeral where the congregation urges the parents to lay their burdens down, the parents’ grief remains overwhelming. The final scene shows the family’s last supper with the son, and reveals a reconciliation between father and son. But as the parents exit the son tells them that he will go to a peace demonstration and there’s nothing to worry about.

From left: Kenneth Kellogg as The Father, Briana Hunter as The Mother, and Joshua Stewart as The Son. Photo credit: Philip Newton.
From left: Kenneth Kellogg as The Father, Briana Hunter as The Mother, and Joshua Stewart as The Son. Photo credit: Philip Newton.

Seattle Opera reprised the production that was originally commissioned by The Glimmerglass Festival, including scenery designed by Donald Eastman and costumes by Jessica Jahn. A huge façade of older rowhouses, evocative of New York City, lined one side of the stage and extended at an angle to the back wall. Excellent lighting by Eric Norbury isolated the characters effectively.

Kenneth Kellogg embodied the persona of The Father perfectly. His slightly rough-hewn bass complemented his demeanor as the man of the house and officer of the law, but also as a parent who could show compassion. 

Mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter was spectacular as The Mother. One of the very high points of any opera that I have ever witnessed was her plea to God to get any part of her son back. Hunter’s anguished cry was riveting. I just wanted to go up to the stage and give her a hug.

Tenor Joshua Stewart as The Son had all of the moves of a defiant teenager, and his voice was strong and absolutely gorgeous. It would be terrific to hear him again in a more demanding role.

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The golden baritone of Gordon Hawkins fit the role of The Reverend like a glove. 

Ariana Wehr’s personality and high-voltage soprano displayed enough wattage to light up Safeco Field. She created the perkiest nurse anywhere and starred as one of the Girlfriends – along with Cheryse McLeod Lewis and Ellaina Lewis. 

Policemen Camron Gray, Korland Simmons, and Joshua Conyers filled the scene at the sports bar with boisterous camaraderie. 

From left: Korland Simmons as Policeman 2, Camron Gray as Policeman 1, and Joshua Conyers as Policeman 3. Photo credit: Philip Newton.
From left: Korland Simmons as Policeman 2, Camron Gray as Policeman 1, and Joshua Conyers as Policeman 3. Photo credit: Philip Newton.
From left: Joshua Conyers as Policeman 3, Kenneth Kellogg as The Father, Korland Simmons as Policeman 2, and Camron Gray as Policeman 1. Photo credit: Sunny Martini.
From left: Joshua Conyers as Policeman 3, Kenneth Kellogg as The Father, Korland Simmons as Policeman 2, and Camron Gray as Policeman 1. Photo credit: Sunny Martini.

One of Thompson’s best ideas was to have The Father change from his civilian clothes to his police uniform during the overture. Because another officer watches him do this, it gives the pantomime a prison-like atmosphere. But it seemed that the scene in which The Father meets with The Reverend needed more drama. In the Seattle production, The Father places his gun on a table where it remains until the end of the scene, when The Reverend removes it. In the Michigan Opera Theatre production of Blue that I saw last summer (read Angela Allen’s review here), The Father picked up his gun at one point and The Reverend takes it away after a brief struggle, making you wonder what will happen next.

The orchestra played with verve, and the conductor Viswa Subbaraman kept the sound well-balanced with the singers throughout the evening. Tesori’s music flew by effortlessly and captured the emotional content superbly. Blue is her first and only opera–she has a Tony-award-winning background in musicals (read the ArtsWatch review of Fun Home at The Armory in 2017 here). I hope that she will write another opera.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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