Photo Credit: Karli Cadel, The Washington Post
Update as of June 17, 2020: The Music Critics Association of North America announced that composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson are the recipients of its 2020 award for best new opera for “Blue.” Read more.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra stands with everyone in unwavering support of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Our Music Director John DeMain has been intimately involved in the new opera “Blue” that premiered at The Glimmerglass Festival last summer. Read more about those performances in a collection of reviews we posted last August.
John shared his thoughts in a Facebook post this week:
I spent a lot of last year and the first part of this year learning and conducting performances of Blue, a heart-wrenching new opera with an incredibly moving score by the great Jeanine Tesori and a tragically pertinent and devastating libretto by the great African American director/playwright Tazewell Thompson. While I’m a big advocate for new operas to deal with the social and cultural issues of our time, I secretly hoped that Blue would quickly outdate itself and fade away into the recesses of history. Sadly I was mistaken, as Blue is at the center of our current George Floyd nightmare. During the initial rehearsal period of Blue, I witnessed the unbearable pain the actors expressed and I came to understand a little better the immeasurable sadness the African-American community has to endure over and over again. I say to my fellow white folks, the African-American artists and their families and friends I have commingled with for so much of my career, have been the dearest, kindest, loving, spiritual, caring group of people I have ever met. That they have showered so much love on me, a white person, when they have suffered so much is just a soupçon of the love they carry in their heart for all of mankind. We must and must NOW learn to do the same.
John was about to conduct performances with the Washington National Opera in March, when the pandemic caused cancellations. A story appeared in The Washington Post just before the performances were to take place. It sheds light on the issues of police violence on black men, and the “hard and hopeful work” creating Blue.
We believe art is a powerful part of making change happen, and invite you to take a moment to learn about this courageous and timely opera.
Read excerpts from the story:
The opera, which the Washington National Opera opens Sunday at the Kennedy Center, dramatizes a modern tragedy: police violence against young black men. A family in Harlem raises a son and is then left to grieve and cope after he is shot and killed by a police officer. It’s a story in which opera’s stylized, ritualistic nature and its ability to make emotion almost unbearably real are in constant orbit.
Kellogg, a black man and the father of a black son, says he acutely feels the story’s emotional burden. “I’m literally facing my fears every day of rehearsal,” he says. “The pressure I feel and the weight I feel to tell this story is unlike any other I’ve ever experienced because it means so much to my community. It’s a steep price. But it’s what I’m willing to pay.” And, he adds, “I’ve seen a large return.” In the Glimmerglass production, Kellogg’s son made a brief appearance as a younger version of the son in the story. On their days off, the two would walk around the nearby town of Cooperstown, N.Y., where they saw the opera’s impact. “People would literally come up to us and be in tears, shaking hands, saying thank you,” Kellogg says. “Because the opera gave them some insight, and it opened up some level of empathy and understanding that they hadn’t reached before.”
The words spark the music; the music colors the words. In “Blue,” every character has their complicated say. “We’ve tried to leave room for the way that I think justice and equity really, really work,” Tesori says, “which is at the level of being around the table, where you get to radically empathize with someone else.”
For everyone involved, it seems, “Blue” has been hard and hopeful work, a journey toward some measure of the catharsis of which Tesori speaks. “It was painful to write,” Thompson says. “It took every part of me to express what I wanted this story to be about. It emptied every particle, every artery of my entire system to do it. But in the end, I felt — what’s the word? Rejuvenated.”