Staging ‘Blue’: Contemporary opera at Michigan Opera Theatre

New work by Tazewell Thompson and Jeanine Tesori reflects Black experience in America.

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DETROIT–When a new opera is performed in an amphitheater, big ideas are in store. Such a space signals a spectacle. It reaches out to ordinary people — a lot of them. That’s what the Romans intended in 29 B.C. when they built their first amphitheater.

That is partly what Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre creatives had in mind by staging Blue—named the  Best New Opera of 2020 by the Music Critics Association of North America—on Sept. 11 and 12 in Detroit’s 6,000-seat Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre. Granted, half the seats were not sold to account for adequate pandemic social distancing, and plenty were empty, but the theater bustled with new opera-goers, longtime opera-goers, food, drinks, chatter and a very vibrant show.

Michigan Opera Theatre's production of 'Blue' at Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit. Photo by Mitty Carter.
Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of ‘Blue’ at Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre in Detroit. Photo by Mitty Carter.

The MOT directors took the risk of the piece being overwhelmed by such a vast space, but MOT, artistically led by the forward-thinking Yuval Sharon, is a gutsy company willing to wrestle with such challenges. Singers were miked, and ramps ran up into the audience where singers sang and Detroit Jit dancers performed, connecting with the spectators. The “scenery,” Josh Higgason’s video work that incorporated Hank Willis Thomas’ racially referential artwork, was highly graphic and multidimensional, where performers were occasionally magnified and reflected on vertical panels.

The Detroit River flowed to the north of the amphitheater—a place where slaves crossed to freedom into Canada—and once, a police boat stopped to listen. Director Kaneza Schaal said in a panel with music critics before the opera that “great story telling means speaking in many languages.” She and her team put their ears to the ground and shaped Blue into a distinctively Detroit production that invited atypical opera-goers.

Michigan Opera Theatre's production of 'Blue' at Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit. Photo by Mitty Carter.
Kenneth Kellogg as The Father in ‘Blue.’ Photo by Mitty Carter.

Jit dancing, big in Detroit, reads a bit like hip hop. It is vaguely similar to the Charleston and to breakdancing, and it’s all about quick feet and legs and nimble knees and arms. Several dancers performed throughout the show, echoing with their bodies the emotions of the singers. Some viewers thought the dancers were distracting; others argued they added a dimension and pulled in a new audience. I thought both ideas were valid.

The opera was not lost in the space if you had a seat close to the stage. If you didn’t, there were problems with echoing sound and difficulty hearing the singers articulate. During the first act, we were unaware that the subtitles were only accessible by a LiveNote technology through your phone. So we missed out on the first act’s libretto.

As for the seats, I had a good seat for the second act and a nose-bleed seat for the first part, and the experiences were hugely different. I’m glad the good seat–and figuring out the subtitle access–came in the second act. I ultimately loved the opera and was moved by the story and music. Even in the huge venue the opera shook down into human scale. If Blue had been performed in a smaller space, it would have translated differently, and perhaps better, but it had the good bones necessary for such experimentation in an unexpected, yet very Detroit site.

Michigan Opera Theatre's production of 'Blue' at Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit. Photo by Mitty Carter.
Jit dancers in ‘Blue.’ Photo by Mitty Carter.

“Blue” for many reasons

Blue (named for police uniforms, referred to as “blues,” as well as for other “blue(s)” metaphors) had been canceled during the pandemic at several theaters–including at the Washington National Opera and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago–so Detroit’s was a long-awaited staging after a Glimmerglass premiere in 2019. It has been courted by at least seven companies since then, and will be staged by Seattle Opera  in February, 2022.

With a poetic and powerful libretto by prolific creator/director Tazewell Thompson and a colorful mixture of blues, jazz, symphonic, operatic, gospel, marching and choral music by Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori (Shrek, Violet, Fun Home, Thoroughly Modern Millie), the opera told the contemporary story of a Black family who loses its only son in an all-too-common senseless police shooting.

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Michigan Opera Theatre's production of 'Blue' at Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit. Photo by Mitty Carter.
Krysty Swann and Kenneth Kellogg in ‘Blue.’ Photo by Mitty Carter.

When Blue was awarded the best-opera award, the occasion intersected with George Floyd’s death almost to the minute—though, of course, it was written before those horrible moments in mid-2020. Composer Tesori said in a discussion at Michigan Opera Theatre before Blue was performed this month that librettist Thompson, who is Black and suffered numerous frightening incidents at the hands of the police, “had from the depths of his bones, a passionate, obsessive need to tell the truth” (about police violence toward Black men) and “to celebrate the families” who have gone through such trauma.

The all-Black-cast opera is a celebration, a tragedy, timely and highly relevant, telling the story of what’s happening in America today. It is a stark contrast to the old-canon stories of kings and princesses in exotic places that have dominated American opera stages. Blue is a character-driven opera about current raw and stinging social issues.

Michigan Opera Theatre's production of 'Blue' at Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit. Photo by Mitty Carter.
Photo by Mitty Carter.

The cast and plot

The opera opens with a chorus of girlfriends surrounding The Mother (mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann) when she learns that she is carrying a boy. The women lament the unborn child’s fate, warning that being born Black and male in America is dangerous. They prove to be prescient, like the Fates. The Father (bass Kenneth Kellogg), who is a cop, is congratulated by his colleagues for siring a boy, but there is fear all around, coupled with joy.

The Boy (tenor Aaron Crouch, a recent award-winning graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music) is introduced as an adolescent. He is an artistic hoodie-wearing teenager peacefully protesting, angered at the treatment and status of Blacks in America. He accuses his policeman father of being an arm of the state, but ultimately the two confirm their love for one another. The Father gives The Boy The Talk: Be very, very careful when you deal with the law, especially when it’s armed.

Aaron Crouch as The Boy in ‘Blue.’ Photo by Mitty Carter.

The singers’ strong lush voices were backed by a 26-piece orchestra directed by Slovenian immigrant/jazz singer Daniela Cadillari, who will be making her Metropolitan Opera debut this season with Matthew AuCoin’s much anticipated Eurydice, a collaboration with playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Mary Zimmerman.

In Blue, the violence happens at intermission, or out of sight, when a white cop kills The Boy, so we are swept into the family’s grief in the second act. The singing becomes richer and deeper with more ensembles as the opera leans into full-blown tragedy. The Father talks to The Reverend (sung robustly by baritone Gordon Hawkins, who performs often at Seattle Opera) and protests the “white God” that has taken his son. This exchange is a moving part with a long, searingly exquisite duet between Hawkins and Kellogg.

The Mother mourns on a ramp spilling into the audience, alone and devastated, though connected to the spectators. Eventually her girlfriends help her into her black dress, slipping it over her head and securing her small hat to her head so she is ready for the funeral. This is an intensely poignant moment, the beginning of a kind of acceptance of the worst kind of fate. As the mother of a single son, I was in tears.

Michigan Opera Theatre's production of 'Blue' at Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit. Photo by Mitty Carter.
Krysty Swann as The Mother in ‘Blue.’ Photo by Mitty Carter.

The opera ends in a kind of communion, an imagined meal with The Father, The Mother  and The Son sitting around the family table, nattering about the meal, dreaming of the son’s future in the arts.

With elegance and resonance, the shared meal is a cathartic ending to a daily American tragedy. The ancient Greeks (and the Romans) would have approved as opera takes a steady step forward with “Blue.”

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About the author

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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