Tuesday, May 11, 2021

My Journey to Writing an Opera About Police Violence

Tazewell Thompson’s libretto for Blue tells the story of a Black family struck by tragedy. 

Tazewell Thompson, top, in Harlem. He wrote “Blue” from “an obsessive need and sense of responsibility” to tell an intimate story about police violence, behind the numbers. Credit: Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

Beginning in February 2022, Seattle Opera presents Blue, the 2020 winner of Best New Opera by the Music Critics Association of North America. This portrait of contemporary African American life is the creation of librettist Tazewell Thompson (five NAACP Awards, plus two Emmy nominations) and composer Jeanine Tesori (Tony-winner known for Fun Home). A story of love, loss, church, and sisterhood, Blue depicts a young couple celebrating the joy of family with the birth of their son. Later they lean on close-knit community in the wake of their son’s death at the hands of a police officer. 

The piece was originally commissioned by the Glimmerglass Festival in 2015 to address contemporary issues surrounding race. After Tesori was asked to write the music, Thompson, a director of several productions at Glimmerglass, was asked to suggest a librettist. He proposed writing one himself, and was inspired by sources such as James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land

And of course, Thompson also drew from his own lived experience. 

In a June 2020 piece for The New York Times, the librettist wrote about why it was crucial for him to tell this story through opera. An excerpt of Tazewell Thompson's words are available below:

"It is hard to think about Blue, or much of anything, in the midst of the continuing pandemic that has taken so much of my community in Harlem. Massive unemployment; lines snaking around several blocks for the food pantry on 116th Street. Small family businesses that have closed forever. The recent brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, Rayshard Brooks and George Floyd: My people and I are left shocked and shivering, fending for ourselves. Moving targets. Who’s next? How are we to catch our breath again? How are we to put our trust in the laws of the land?

It is difficult for me not to feel utterly defeated. Not difficult at all for me to see my face superimposed over George Floyd’s. I’m angry and frightened, living in an increasingly terrifying, divisive country — where a white police officer, in broad daylight, in uniform, snuffs out the life of an unarmed, handcuffed black man.

When I joined the Glimmerglass project in 2015, the opera was referred to in shorthand as Race Opera. I began to attach new titles to each draft: No Name Necessary, Say My Name, The Hunted, Targets, Black Boy.

Credit: Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival

Both police officers I spoke to referred to their uniform as 'blues': 'When I’m in my blues.' As the opera begins, the audience sees the central character, the father, changing from his civilian clothes into his police blues. I kept cycling through titles: Black Blue, Black In Blue, Black Is Blue. But it seemed better to be more ambiguous, to refer equally to a mood, a uniform, a kind of day, a kind of music. I wrote to Jeanine and we decided we should call it Blue.

When the final curtain fell on opening night, there was a long silence, followed by gasps, audible weeping, and then, finally, applause. Blue has been referred to as a 'protest opera' and 'the opera about police violence.' I suppose both are true. But I did not set out with that goal. I wrote it from an obsessive need and sense of responsibility to tell an intimate story behind the numbing numbers of boys and men who are killed.

But here we are now: art imitating life, life imitating art. Unfortunately, the themes in Blue have no expiration date. I add my voice to those of the characters singing in the opera, and to those of the real families suffering great losses. Our eyes will never be free of tears."

Blue premieres at Seattle Opera Feb. 26 – March 12, 2022, in McCaw Hall. To learn more, go to seattleopera.org/blue

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