In early March 2020, Tazewell Thompson was doing dress rehearsals with Washington National Opera for the second run of his new opera “Blue” when live arts were canceled worldwide.
“After Washington was to be Chicago, Minnesota, then New York City at the Mostly Mozart Festival,” said Thompson, the acclaimed director, playwright and librettist who wrote the text of “Blue,” during a recent interview from his home in New York. “And then it was all gone.”
Thompson is directing the Seattle Opera staging, which opens Feb. 26 at McCaw Hall. It will be audiences’ first chance to see the original production since its 2019 debut at the Glimmerglass Festival (Michigan Opera Theatre did a limited production in an outdoor venue in 2021).
The opera, about a Black family that draws strength from its community in the face of a police killing, had premiered to widespread critical praise, winning the Music Critics Association of North America’s award for best new opera and becoming one of the most anticipated shows of 2020.
But just days before performances were set to begin in D.C., the pandemic stopped the forward trajectory cold. “It was surreal,” said Thompson, who has directed operas at prestigious venues including Glimmerglass, New York City Opera and La Scala, and whose televised “Live from Lincoln Center” production of “Porgy and Bess” was nominated for an Emmy.
The Washington Post called “Blue” “the best new opera that barely anyone saw.”
Having taken four years to develop and produce, “Blue” was like a child Thompson, composer Jeanine Tesori, and the cast and crew had collectively brought into the world. “It was like a toddler that was just starting to walk,” said Thompson, for whom “Blue” is his first libretto. But then “our baby was kidnapped and locked in a closet.”
Writing “Blue” was an emotional process for Thompson. As a Black man, he has watched the consequences of racism unfold in America over and over, and here he was laying it bare on the page. After he decided (at Tesori’s suggestion) to make the father character a police officer, he researched what that would be like, talking to Black police officers about their jobs and lives. They told him about wanting to be forces for good even as their neighbors — and even some of their colleagues — viewed them with suspicion. One of them described how his teenage son “goes into his room and closes the door” when he sees his father in uniform, Thompson said. Like the son in “Blue,” the young man saw reminders of his father’s job as symbols of oppression.
Once he had crafted the bones of the story, he and Tesori — a prolific composer whose previous work includes “Violet,” “Caroline, or Change,” and the Tony-winning “Fun Home” — worked together to put it all to music. “I couldn’t have had a better first experience than to work with the genius that is Jeanine Tesori,” Thompson said.
After all the work that went into the opera, the glowing reception to the premiere was “such an exhilarating experience,” he said. But then theaters went dark and soon after, the killing of George Floyd by police sparked waves of protests nationwide and talk of a new reckoning with America’s history of racism — the same racism that underlies the events in “Blue.”
Two years later, the themes in “Blue” are, if anything, more relevant than they were then: violence plagues the country even as its citizens loudly deplore it. “Blue” depicts burdens of prejudice the Black community has lived with for many years — burdens the George Floyd murder brought front and center for the rest of the nation. It was almost as if the opera was playing out on a real-life stage. “Life is imitating art; art imitating life,” Thompson said.
But despite the tragedy at the center of it, “The opera is also about the joy and love and the nurturing of a community,” Thompson said — about the way people support each other through the best and worst of times. The family’s friends first celebrate the birth of the couple’s son, then help them survive his death.
“It mirrored my life”
Bass baritone Kenneth Kellogg, who sings The Father, is one of three performers from the original Glimmerglass production who will take the stage in Seattle; the others are Gordon Hawkins (who performed in Seattle Opera’s “Aida” in 2018 and sings The Reverend) and Briana Hunter, who plays The Mother and will be making her Seattle Opera debut.
This is the first time Kellogg will perform in person at Seattle Opera. He sang as the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni” last year, in a staging originally planned as an in-person production and morphed into a livestreamed event.
Kellogg plays a Harlem policeman whose beloved son is killed by one of his fellow officers during a protest. The parents in “Blue” have to give their young son “the talk” that parents of Black sons know so well — the one preparing the young men for how they must protect themselves from the world’s perception of them.
As the father of a young son himself, “I intrinsically knew this character,” Kellogg said. “My wife and I were having the same conversations.”
The opera so stirred him that after the first time he sang from it, “I literally slumped,” Kellogg said. “It mirrored my life.”
Those emotions still come up every time he sings the part — and he doesn’t hold them back. The tears in his eyes during the opera’s saddest scenes are real. Fathers come up to him after the show and tell him how much they identify with the man he portrays on stage.
The opera addresses the kinds of generational disagreements that have also played out among families and communities over the past two years. The son is embarrassed that his father wears the uniform of what he considers his oppressor, while the father sees his job as a way to reliably provide for his family, Kellogg said.
Inclusion in opera
The same reckoning that pushed protesters into the streets also pushed discussions of inclusion in opera.
“The last two years have been sort of transformative in changing the conversation,” said Jessica Jahn, the costume designer for “Blue” who’s originally from Seattle and now lives in New York. Stuck at home when they expected to be flying around the country working on productions in various places, people of color in the arts — from singers to costume designers to administrators — started talking about how to support one another and the fight for better representation and inclusion.
“One of the things that has been valuable has been that networking and connecting of those communities to each other, to create this support system and this community of like-minded people all working toward a common goal,” said Jahn, who is active in equity initiatives including the Racial Justice Opera Network.
As for audiences and decision makers in arts organizations, she said, “They are now ready to hear and listen to the voices of people who have been telling them this for all these years.”
“Blue” might seem like a new kind of opera — one that addresses issues of race and class by telling the stories of everyday folks, not nobility or mythological figures. But Jahn points out that many of the stories that make up the traditional canon were contemporary when they were written, or at least alluded to issues of their times. “There’s a tendency to forget that all of these stories were written as social commentary,” Jahn said.
Kellogg agrees that opera can blossom when it mines previously ignored subjects, especially when today’s audiences can recognize the themes and see themselves in the characters. “There’s a variety of stories we haven’t given value to.”
Jahn hopes audiences will “be as open as possible to experiencing and supporting work that is innovative and perhaps different from what they were expecting when they thought about opera,” she said. “Think about how different experiences might change your perspective.”
Perhaps coming together for art is just what we all need, Thompson says. These days, we’re all looking for the kind of connection that helps the family in “Blue” through its heartache. And we’ve missed sharing illuminating new experiences among other people who are experiencing the same thing at the same time — feeling and growing alongside one another.
“The loss of the idea of sitting in the dark, sitting side by side with strangers or your friends, the idea of sitting side by side and holding hands, in a sense, and experiencing the light on stage and hearing singers sing something that’s familiar or not familiar to you, and feeling empathy for the characters — we’ve lost that,” Thompson said. “Maybe opera has to rescue all of us.”