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Monday, July 15, 2019

Singing the Blue

OPERA PLAYS HAVOC WITH TIME. Like a novel, it can speed or slow a moment or more, but it enhances the emotional import of those moments with music. “Music is something terribly special,” wrote Leonard Bernstein. “It doesn’t have to pass through the censor of the brain before it can reach the heart.”

Kenneth Kellogg, Briana Hunter, and Aaron Crouch
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Time accelerates as the first act of “Blue” comes to an end: An ugly confrontation between father and son, expertly written and realized, quickens the heartbeat. Then, as Act Two slowly opens, we’re mired in a time-stopping vale of grief. “Blue” is an emotionally overpowering piece that focuses on the peril of being a black man in America, even as the context of family and friends makes the experience universal. It’s a lean and expertly realized production, receiving its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival.

Unsettling sounds from the orchestra underscore the opening pantomime as The Father (Kenneth Kellogg) is confronted by a trio of policemen taking issue with the effrontery of him walking while black. But the mood shifts as they help him disrobe and then don a policeman’s uniform. He has joined the Force, a fact that dismays the trio of girlfriends who visit his wife, The Mother (Briana Hunter) when they learn she is pregnant. But the sequence that follows – “Go Figure!” – is more about the boy she will bear. Doesn’t she know the command for all African-American women? “Thou shalt bring forth no black boys into this world.” Take him to China – get that baby boy away from here, they warn.

The libretto is by Tazewell Thompson, who has directed many a Glimmerglass production (including the recent devastating production of “Lost in the Stars”) in the course of his distinguished directing and playwriting career. The economy of an opera script encourages heightened language; the genius of this script is its ability to fashion that heightened journey with a deft ear for the vernacular. This isn’t the way we’d expect these people to speak, but they’re not speaking – they’re singing, and the use of slang and other familiar tropes makes it all the more believable.

Composer Jeanne Tesori works in a boundary-free realm that includes Broadway (“Fun Home” took away a Tony), film, and opera (she’s working on a piece for the Met), and her setting of “Blue” is livened by a deft sense of what works where, lacing sounds of pop music and jazz into her complex and often disturbing score.

Mia Athey, Briana Hunter, Brea
Renetta Marshall, and Ariana Wehr
Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival
A stylized urban street scene serves as backdrop, and Donald Eastman’s set design adds a few pieces of furniture here and there, enough to suggest each of the several locations, playing out on a tiled floor. The backdrop is white, as becomes the entire set when The Mother is lying in her hospital bed after the birth of her baby. “Did you see him?” she asks her husband. He did. The baby “looks like a black exclamation point on a white sheet of paper.”

Robert Wierzel’s lighting colors the set, particularly the backdrop, for mood and occasion, warming or cooling the situation. It’s ochre when The Mother and her girlfriends are together, violet at the sports bar where The Father meets his Policemen buddies and they welcome him, in an amusing, apposite number, to the Daddy Club. And when The Father meets The Reverend to confess the sin he intends to commit, a single backdrop window lights to reveal cross-shaped muntins.

We meet The Son (Aaron Crouch) as a teen, a sullenly defiant soul. Why isn’t he more sociable, his father wants to know. “Nobody wants to come over with a cop on the premises.” The boy, in hoodie and dreads, was picked up that day for jumping a turnstile, his way of protesting that mass transit should be free to all. His obvious intelligence is enhanced by his artistic talent, but his friction with his father isn’t going to ease any time soon. It’s terse, sarcastic, and very, very real. And confusing: you’re in sympathy with both sides of the argument and long to see them bridge the gulf. “What am I supposed to do?” the young man cries, and his father tells him, “Stay alive. A black boy is a walkin’, movin’ target.” And then The Father reaches out. Too proud to respond when The Son first begs for some sign of affection, he finally opens his arms and declares, “I will never lot you go,” finishing the first act on a satisfyingly upbeat note.

It’s a cruel trick. And it spoils nothing to reveal that Act Two begins in a church, with the realization that The Son is dead and The Father seeks something he can’t at first express. The Reverend (Gordon Hawkins) is good for homily and cliché, his huge voice filling the hall as he booms forth his boilerplate comfort. The Father won’t be comforted, yet, like The Son in the previous scene, he’ll listen to the right combination of words. He’s through with the Force, and gives the Reverend a souvenir: “This is my badge, shaped like an irregular heart.” And he finds consolation in the spiritual “Down by the Riverside”: “I lay my burden down,” he sings. “Ain’t gonna study war no more.”

(Front:) Kenneth Kellogg, Briana Hunter, and Gordon Hawkins
Photo: Connor Lange/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Girlfriends return for the funeral, “dressed in forever black, the color of our children,” to welcome The Mother to “the sad sorority – mothers without sons.” At first The Mother resists the reality, singing, “Bring my baby back to me,” but soon enough she’s resigned to it. “Take care of my boy,” she asks, the start not only of a wrenching ensemble number but also the wipeout of the audience.

That, however, wasn’t what sent the audience over the edge. It’s the final scene, a visit once more to the family when The Son was alive. The Mother is palliating his conflict with his father by serving a lavish meal that she joyously describes. Somebody a couple of row behind me burst into outright sobs, and that’s all it took to gush open the waterworks throughout the house. Lights went up; the audience shot to its feet, cheeks a-glisten, to give the cast a deserved ovation.

In addition to those mentioned above, the rest of the superb ensemble comprises Ariana Wehr, Brea Renetta Marshall, and Mia Athey as the Girlfriends, and Camron Gray, Edward Graves, and Nicholas Davis as Policemen. All played other roles as needed, and all, along with Crouch, are members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program, which shows the extraordinary level of talent among the younger singers today. Thompson directed the production, and the virtuoso orchestra was conducted by John DeMain, who is also a veteran of all manner of musical-theater production.

When we see “Showboat,” also part of the current Glimmerglass season, we’d like to think such racism as depicted therein is behind us. “Blue” reminds us that it isn’t. The front-page tragedies go on, even if we’d like to forget them. “Blue” gives a poignant look into the lives of those affected by them. Can an opera serve as a cure? I don’t know where else we can turn but to the arts for such inspiration. What’s supposed to be investigative journalism has turned into fear-mongering and hand-wringing; public discourse doesn’t occur because social media has fragmented society. It’s when we gather to witness a work like this that we stand to be shaken into action.

Music by Jeanne Tesori
Libretto by Tazewell Thompson
Conducted by John DeMain
Directed by Tazewell Thompson
The Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, NY, 14 July 2019

The production runs through 22 August 2019; more information is here.

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