As the lights dim at the beginning of the 2019 opera “Blue,” running through March 12 at Seattle Opera, a wash of blue light covers the audience, and alongside it, a sweeping feeling of dread. There’s inevitability at play. The summary and any discussion around “Blue” tells you, from the jump, that a Black teenage boy will die in this production at the hands of the police, and his family and community will suffer. That’s the way the opera was written. It’s inevitable.
But in that, librettist Tazewell Thompson, who also directed this production, goes further. Before that child is even born into this onstage world, his fate is seen as sealed. When The Mother announces to her friends that she’s having a boy, it’s a worrying announcement, with the women reminding her, “Thou shalt bring no Black boys into this world.” Thompson’s staging even has the women distancing themselves, turning their backs on The Mother, before eventually coming back to lay hands on her belly and bless her unborn child. A sickening reminder that the audience already knows this child’s fate, but even the characters feel its likelihood.
Both Thompson’s libretto and direction excel through contrasts. The worry of The Mother’s friends is juxtaposed against the excitement of The Father’s friends, jealous that he was able to have a boy on his first try. Set designer Donald Eastman’s stark white backdrop of a slanted facade of Harlem flats nestled against the dark black tiled flooring, both looming large around a minimalistic concept that dwarfs the performers in the space. Many times, the set and Eric Norbury’s lighting design (with Robert Wierzel credited for the original design) seem to squeeze down and isolate the characters into small areas on the large stage, emphasizing the loneliness felt by the central family in “Blue.”
The Mother and The Father (Briana Hunter and Kenneth Kellogg brilliantly reprising their roles from the 2019 production) have only two real scenes together — the birth of their son and his funeral — with them remaining mostly isolated from each other, on their individual emotional journeys through their son’s truncated life. But all of this painful separation gives way to beautiful moments of connection, emphasized by composer Jeanine Tesori’s soaring score under conductor Viswa Subbaraman.
A rift between The Father and The Son (an incredible Joshua Stewart in all-too-brief stage time) sees The Son railing against his father’s choice to be a cop, saying he has his own private warden and pointing out that his friends don’t even want to come over because there’s a cop living in their house. The Father pushes back against his son, who was caught jumping turnstiles and spitting in a cop’s face during a protest, saying he should take off the hoodie and stay off the streets. This large rift gives way to a beautiful moment of a father cradling his frustrated son, promising he’ll never let him go.
Now, it’s easy to focus on the pain within this script, because there’s a lot of it, but again, Thompson contrasts. His libretto is playful and genuinely funny throughout, despite the foreboding undertone. In fact, the climax of the opera, a highly emotional scene at The Son’s funeral, shifts the focus from the hurt and onto the love and support found through community and religion. The repeated refrain “lay my burden down” echoes throughout the masterful scene from Thompson and Tesori that, for the first time in the entire opera, brings the full ensemble together onstage. For once, the white backdrop doesn’t seem to loom quite so large.
By the end of the opera, which concludes with an epilogue and final moment that I won’t spoil beyond saying it was a wallop of a gut punch, there’s a conflict at play. It feels odd to wish for more from an opera that already sits close to two-and-a-half hours, but I’m left wishing the opera had gone further. Perhaps that’s because, between when the opera was commissioned (2015) and originally premiered at Glimmerglass Festival (2019) and now, the conversations around police violence and the death of Black men specifically at the hands of the police have only intensified and at times this feels more like a recap than the next chapter.
That said, this chapter, in a medium like opera where Black stories don’t grace the stage nearly enough, is necessary. A story about how police violence rips and tears not just at Black families, but at Black communities, in an opera space is something special, perhaps even something radical to some opera attendees. After all, when James Baldwin wrote “The Fire Next Time,” detailing the struggle of Black people in America and calling forth the spiritual line, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign; No more water, the fire next time,” he knew that he didn’t have to teach other Black people about the pain they were experiencing in society. Instead, his work used the line as a metaphor for the dangers of society not truly coming to terms with its racism problem — transgressions to be met not with another biblical flood, but next time with the fire of judgment. Here, “Blue” serves as an invitation for Black attendees to commune and lay their burdens down. For others? Well, perhaps a reminder of Baldwin’s 1963 plea matched with the pain and desperation of the moment, with The Father saying, at the end of a searching conversation with a reverend, “What I need from you is the fire this time.”