by Roseann Cane
A few days ago, I attended the World Premiere of Blue at the Glimmerglass Festival. I found I required something of a respite before I was able to sit down and write about this opera. I was so profoundly affected by this contemporary story of grief and injustice that I frequently pondered sections of the opera, losing my breath as I reexperienced the piercing realism of what I had seen.
In a Harlem apartment, a joyous Mother (Briana Hunter) celebrates her pregnancy with three vivacious Girlfriends (Ariana Wehr, Brea Renatta Marshall, and Mia Athey). When The Mother announces that she is carrying a boy, the Girlfriends’ mood shifts to serious concern about the wellbeing of the child, and Cassandra-like, they warn her of the terrible fate met by so many young African-American sons. The Mother’s happiness does not dim, and the Girlfriends offer their blessings.
The Father (Kenneth Kellogg), a police officer, shares the news with three fellow Policemen (Camron Gray, Edward Graves, and Nicholas Davis), who are elated to hear that their colleague and friend is expecting a boy.
I was stricken by how quickly this opera drew me in. The splendid voices and raw emotion of the excellent cast, the elegant composition, with music structured yet fresh, at times sweet, at other times atonal, and always full of feeling, pierced me. Every now and then I found the lyrics difficult to understand, but I think contemporary, colloquial English language may not always be a good fit for opera; the projected supertitles easily remedied that. Additionally, Donald Eastman’s set design representing a row of urban buildings, and some chairs and tables that are promptly shifted with scene changes, seem ideal for such a complex, heartrending story. As The Mother and The Father, Hunter and Kellogg’s glorious voices carry us through elation, grief, and despair. Here we have a stable family, with strong community ties, a family that does everything “right.” Kellogg’s frustration with and love for his adolescent son is palpable as the 16-year-old berates his father’s uniform, and expresses rage that he participates in upholding an oppressive system. Still,The Son (a passionate, churning Aaron Crouch), is shot and killed by a police officer at a peaceful protest rally.
As the heartbroken Father seeks understanding from The Reverend (Gordon Hawkins, in a powerful, steadfast, kindly performance), The Father finds himself enraged much as his son had been, and lashes out at the clergyman. Eventually, as he attends his son’s funeral, he finds himself led back into the embrace of the community.
There is an epilogue, where we see The Father, The Mother, and The Son seated at the kitchen table, discussing The Son’s plans to continue studying art. It is this epilogue that crowns the opera, because we know that in a just world, this is how life would go on for this good family. This warm gathering is crushing to behold.
This stunning opera mirrors life in America today, and makes the terrible fear that must accompany every parent of a black son very, very personal. I hope Blue is produced nationally, because this piece of art should be experienced by people of every color.
The Glimmerglass Festival presents Blue Music by Jeanine Tesori, Libretto by Tazewell Thompson, Conductor: John DeMain, Director: Tazewell Thompson. Donald Eastman, Set Designer; Jessica Jahn, Costume Designer; Robert Wierzel, Lighting Designer; Eric Sean Fogel, Movement Coach; Samantha M. Wootten, Hair & Makeup Designer; Cassie Williams, Associate Hair and Makeup Designer; Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles. CAST: Kenneth Kellogg as The Father; Briana Hunter as The Mother; Aaron Crouch as The Son; Gordon Hawkins as The Reverend; Ariana Wehr as Girlfriend 1/Nurse/Congregant 1; Brea Renetta Marshall as Girlfriend 2/Congregant 2; Mia Athey as Girlfriend 3/Congregant 3; Camron Gray as Policeman 1/Congregant 1; Edward Graves as Policeman 2/Congregant 2; Nicholas Davis as Policeman 3/Congregant 3