As the lights go out at the start of 2019’s “Blue” opera, until March 12 at the Seattle Opera, a flood of blue light covers the audience, and next to it, a feeling of dread. There’s inevitability at play. The synopsis and any discussion around “Blue” tells you, from the jump, that a black teenager will die in this production at the hands of the police, and that his family and community in will suffer. This is how the opera was written. It’s inevitable.
But in this, the librettist Tazewell Thompson, who also directed this production, goes further. Even before this child is born into this world on stage, his fate is considered sealed. When The Mother tells her friends she’s having a boy, it’s an ominous announcement, with the women reminding her, “You’re not bringing black boys into this world.” Thompson’s staging even causes the women to distance themselves, turn their backs on the mother, before finally returning to lay their hands on her belly and bless her unborn child. A sickening reminder that the audience already knows the fate of this child, but even the characters feel the likelihood.
Thompson’s libretto and direction excel through contrasts. The concern of La Mère’s friends is juxtaposed with the excitement of Le Père’s friends, jealous of having been able to have a boy the first time around. Decorator Donald Eastman’s white backdrop of a sloping facade of Harlem apartments nestled against the dark black tiled floor, both towering around a minimalist concept that eclipses the performers in the space. Many times the set and lighting design by Eric Norbury (with Robert Wierzel credited for the original design) seem to squeeze and isolate the figures into small areas on the large stage, emphasizing the loneliness felt by the central family in “Blue”.
The mother and father (Briana Hunter and Kenneth Kellogg brilliantly reprising their roles from the 2019 production) only have two real scenes together – the birth of their son and his funeral – with them remaining mostly isolated from each other. others, on their individual emotional journeys through the truncated life of their son. But all this painful separation gives way to beautiful moments of connection, underlined by the soaring score of composer Jeanine Tesori under the direction of Viswa Subbaraman.
A rift between father and son (an incredible Joshua Stewart in all-too-brief scene time) sees the son protest his father’s choice to be a cop, saying he has his own private manager and pointing out that his friends don’t. I don’t even want to come because there’s a cop who lives with them. The father fends off his son, who was caught jumping turnstiles and spitting in the face of a cop during a protest, saying he should take off the hoodie and stay off the streets. This big flaw gives way to a beautiful moment of a father cradling his frustrated son, promising that he will never let him go.
Now, it’s easy to focus on the pain in this script, because there’s a lot of it, but again, Thompson contrasts. Its libretto is playful and genuinely funny throughout, despite the ominous undertone. In fact, the opera’s climax, a very moving scene at The Son’s funeral, shifts the focus from the hurt to the love and support found through community and religion. The repeated refrain “lay down my burden” echoes throughout Thompson and Tesori’s masterful scene which, for the first time in the entire opera, brings the full ensemble together on stage. For once, the white backdrop doesn’t seem so grand.
At the end of the opera, which ends with an epilogue and a final moment that I won’t spoil beyond saying it was a big punch, there’s a conflict at play. It’s odd to wish for more from an opera that is already nearly two and a half hours long, but I wish the opera had gone further. This may be because between the time the opera was commissioned (2015) and its Glimmerglass Festival premiere (2019) and now, conversations about police brutality and the deaths of black men specifically at the hands of police have only escalated and at times it feels more like a recap than the next chapter.
That said, this chapter, in a medium like opera where dark stories don’t grace the stage enough, is needed. A story about how police violence tears apart not just black families, but black communities, in an opera space is something special, maybe even something radical for some operagoers. After all, when James Baldwin wrote “The Fire Next Time,” detailing the struggle of black people in America and calling the spiritual line, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign; More water, fire next time,” he knew he didn’t have to teach other black people about the pain they were experiencing in society. Instead, his work has used the line as a metaphor for the dangers of a society that does not really solve its problem of racism – transgressions to be met not with another biblical flood, but next time with the fire of the judgement. Here, “Blue” serves as an invitation to black attendees to commune and lay down their burdens. For the others? Well, perhaps a callback to Baldwin’s call in 1963 matched the pain and desperation of the moment, with The Father saying, at the end of an in-depth conversation with a Reverend, “What I need of you, it’s fire this time.”