New Opera 'Blue' Takes On The Tragedy Of Police Brutality

Jul 21, 2019

Opera is an art form well-suited to big emotions and tragic stories, often set in the past. But a new opera, Blue, grapples with a more contemporary tragedy — the killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of a police officer.

Blue premiered on July 14 at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York state, where it is set to run through Aug. 22. The opera takes on a dark story about race in America. A young black couple falls in love and has a baby boy. The son becomes a rebellious teenager and is shot and killed by a police officer at a protest. The second act of the opera explores the aftermath of that traumatic event.

Tazewell Thompson, Blue's director as well as the writer of its libretto, says that he's wanted to explore the opera's more private, familial themes for some time now.

"I knew that I wanted to write the story behind the story of the headlines," Thompson says. "That was in my head all along. That was in my heart. That was in my system. I wanted that story — how it affects the family. I really wanted to get to know the parents."

Further complicating the opera's devastating tragedy, one of those parents is a police officer himself. Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the score for Blue, proposed this character detail when she and Thompson began working on the opera.

"I haven't seen many stories about African American police officers and the incredible challenge that they face," she says. "It's also Tazewell's story. This is deeply Tazewell's story," she says, describing the opera's inspiration.

Thompson lives in Harlem, where the opera is set and he's had his own run-ins with the police. "In my own neighborhood, I was frisked and slammed against the wall," Thompson says. He remembers another incident he had where police officers mistook his identity for someone else's and surrounded him in a subway station. "I was scared. One police officer had his hand on his holster. And when they realized they had the wrong person, they didn't say 'Oh, we're sorry.' They said, 'stay out of trouble.'"

Briana Hunter as The Mother and Kenneth Kellogg as The Father in the 2019 premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson's Blue.
Karli Cadel / Courtesy of The Glimmerglass Festival

As he was writing the opera, Thompson spoke with both black police officers and parents to inform his work. Those conversations are behind a scene in Blue when the father, in the hopes of keeping his child safe, gives his son "the talk" — the talk, that is, about how to behave when he sees a cop. "Every parent that I interviewed — black parents — they had this talk with their sons at a very young age," Thompson says.

Despite "the talk," the son in the opera becomes a victim of police violence. "Performing this comes at a cost, I think, to all of us," says mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter, who plays the anguished mother in Blue. "It's one that we all think is worth paying."

Hunter says that performing in Blue offers an important space for processing and communication. "Very rarely do we get to so directly communicate our feelings about what's going on in the world," Hunter reflects. "It's allowed us to kind of grieve and process a lot of trauma." She hopes audiences who see the opera can process those feelings, too.

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Opera is an art form well-suited to big emotions and tragic stories. Most are set in the past, but a new opera, "Blue," which premiered at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., takes on a contemporary tragedy - the killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of a police officer. Jeff Lunden has this report.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: "Blue" starts in silence. A young black man in a hoodie is center stage.

KENNETH KELLOGG: It's bigger than the hoodie, you know.

LUNDEN: Kenneth Kellogg plays him.

KELLOGG: It's a black man in a hoodie that's the issue.

LUNDEN: While ominous music plays, the young man is slowly surrounded by police. Is he going to be arrested? Is there going to be violence? No. He takes off the hoodie, changes his clothes and puts on a police uniform - a black man in blue.

KELLOGG: It sets an interesting tone for what's to come.

LUNDEN: Tazewell Thompson has written a libretto as well as directed "Blue." What's to come is an opera that takes on an elemental story about race in America. A young black couple falls in love and has a baby boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BLUE")

KELLOGG: (As character) My son, my little baby boy...

LUNDEN: His son becomes a rebellious teenager.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BLUE")

AARON CROUCH: (As character) Got my own private (unintelligible) locked down.

LUNDEN: And he's shot and killed by a police officer at a protest. The second act of the opera explores the aftermath.

TAZEWELL THOMPSON: I knew that I wanted to write the story behind the story of the headline.

LUNDEN: Again, Tazewell Thompson.

THOMPSON: That was in my head all along. That was in my heart. That was in my system. I wanted that story - how it affects the family. I really wanted to get to know the parents. I wanted to get to know, who do the parents go to? Do they go to the church? How does the church respond? And what about their closest friends?

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BLUE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori has written the score for "Blue." When she and Tazewell Thompson began working on the opera, she suggested the father - none of the characters have names - be a police officer.

JEANINE TESORI: I haven't seen many stories about African American police officers and the incredible challenge that they face. And it's also Tazewell's story. This is deeply Tazewell's story.

LUNDEN: Tazewell Thompson lives in Harlem, where the opera is set. And he's had his own run-ins with the police.

THOMPSON: In my own neighborhood, I was frisked slammed against the wall. And then I had another incident where police officers surrounded me in a subway, and there was a mistaken identity. But I was scared. One police officer had his hand on his holster. And then when they realized they had the wrong person, they didn't say, oh, we're sorry. They said, stay out of trouble.

LUNDEN: In the opera, the son is embarrassed that his father is a police officer, and they bicker. But the father wants him to be safe and gives him, quote, "the talk" about how to behave when he sees a cop.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BLUE")

KELLOGG: (As character) In your life, that's what you're supposed to do.

LUNDEN: Thompson spoke with both black police officers and parents as he wrote the opera.

THOMPSON: Every parent that I interviewed - black parents - they have this talk with their sons at a very young age.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "BLUE")

KELLOGG: (As character) Take off the hoodie. Take off the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie. Son, you are black - a walking moving target - a black boy.

CROUCH: (As character) That's exactly what I am.

LUNDEN: But despite the talk, the son becomes a victim of police violence. It deliberately happens offstage, says composer Jeanine Tesori.

TESORI: We always knew we didn't want this. This mustn't be on stage. But it really is about possibility denied and the aftermath and the costs and the consequence for everyone and that you understand the ripple effect.

BRIANA HUNTER: Performing this comes at a cost, I think, to all of us. It's one that we all think is worth paying.

LUNDEN: Mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter plays the anguished mother in "Blue."

HUNTER: Very rarely do we get to so directly communicate our feelings about what's going on in the world. It's allowed us to kind of grieve and process a lot of trauma.

LUNDEN: And she says she hopes audiences who see the opera can process those feelings, too. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.