Friday, January 7, 2022


The Composer of Blue

In this Seattle Opera interview, Tesori recounts the legacy of her grandfather, her approach to composing, and collaborating with Blue librettist Tazewell Thompson.

JEANINE TESORI is a composer of musical theater, opera, television and film. She won the Tony Award for Best Score (with bookwriter & lyricist, Lisa Kron) for the musical Fun Home. Her other musicals include Caroline, or Change (with Tony Kushner), Shrek the Musical (with David Lindsay-Abaire), Thoroughly Modern Millie (with Dick Scanlan), Violet (with Brian Crawley), Kimberly Akimbo (with Lindsay-Abaire) and Soft Power (with David Henry Hwang) which was her second work after Fun Home to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Along with Missy Mazzoli, she is one of the first women to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. Her operas include A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck (Tony Kushner, libretto), Blue (Tazewell Thompson, libretto) which received the MCANA Award for Best New Opera, and the upcoming Grounded (George Brant, libretto) at the Met. In addition to her work as a composer, Tesori is the Founding Artistic Director of New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series, Supervising Vocal Producer of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, and lecturer in music at Yale University.

Seattle Opera: Would you share your story of becoming a composer?

Jeanine Tesori: It’s such an interesting and mysterious journey for me. I do think that in my case it's my family legacy. My grandfather was a composer. I never met him—he died when my mother was five. But I have his charts, baton, a poster, and music stand. The stand is right by my piano. As I age, I feel an incredible connection to him. He led a band in the Midwest before settling in Wilkes-Barre, NY. I feel the energy and connection, because sometimes I don't know where the music comes from. 

My ear training and family are important aspects of my background. I was taught to keep my head down, do the work, and bring people along with you if you rise. 

Seattle Opera: Do you approach composing for film and stage differently? 

Jeanine Tesori: Great question. For me, the approach is the same and the expectation is different, depending on the medium—be it theater, film, or opera. The text always leads. What is the text saying? What is the text not saying? Where does it need to breathe? Who is this character? What's in their pockets? What are their weapons? What are their secrets? What do these characters want? What's standing in their way? Do they emerge in victory or tragedy? That has always been my approach. The music I write for opera is very theatrical. It has a different kind of pacing because I come from the theater tradition. Right now, I believe opera is in a beautiful golden age.

Tesori's musical Caroline, or Change is currently closing a successful revival on Broadway. Credit: Joan Marcus / Roundabout Theatre Company
Seattle Opera: Writers often maintain journals or keep notes that they use to inspire their writing. As a composer, do you have a similar process? 

Jeanine Tesori: I do. But I'm very visual person, I always have been. So I carry sketch pads everywhere. I'm always jotting and sketching. Strangely enough, it helps me work things out in my mind musically. I have so many notepads. They are all over place and very disorganized.

Seattle Opera: Are your sketches visual representations of your compositions?

Jeanine Tesori: No, it’s a form of meditation. To help me visualize what I’m composing, I chart the characters and plots with Post it Notes on display boards. That way I know what’s happening at all points.

Seattle Opera: I’d like to talk about Blue, now. Are there any musical themes or passages that the audience should listen for?

Jeanine Tesori: It's interesting that you asked that because there are several. One comes near the beginning of Act II—the scene between The Father and The Reverend. The Father gives his police badge to The Reverend, singing “I lay my burden down. I ain't going to study war no more.” I really took that passage and ran with it. It hit me in such a way that I wrote a choral piece based on that theme.

The other scene that I would love people to listen for is in the second scene of the Act I. Here The Nurse instructs The Father on the correct way how to hold his new baby. This theme is reprised late in the opera when The Mother asks God to care for the son in the same way, to hold him with the same care and instructions that the Nurse gave to the father. Here, it is the Heavenly Father.

Briana Hunter (The Mother) and Kenneth Kellogg (The Father) in Blue. Credit: Karli Cadel / Glimmerglass
Seattle Opera: It appears that you and Tazewell worked very closely on Blue. Traditionally the composer has top billing over the librettist. In this case, you and Tazewell worked hand in hand. What are your feelings about that? I hope that I’m making sense and not just babbling. 

Jeanine Tesori: You’re not babbling. I understand what you’re asking. This is Tazewell’s story. When I asked him to write this with me, I knew that it would delve into parts of his life that were going to be traumatic and painful. This story is rightfully his. And I think librettists are ignored way too often. For example, very few people know Mozart's librettists. Real true fans will know, but not many more. I work with playwrights. I'm part of a theater tradition where you own your work, and the word is the queen. 

As a composer, I’m aware of the fact that if I don't have text, I have nothing to say. For me, it's incredibly important, especially for someone like Tazewell—a man of color—for people to understand that I'm visiting in this landscape as a white artist. I'm a visitor in those parts. The poetry in Blue comes from Tazewell’s heart.

Seattle Opera: I’ve read that you suggested changing The Father's role from musician to police officer. Why?

Jeanine Tesori: It occurred to me that there were a lot of stories about musicians of color, often ending in tragedy. I wasn't interested in writing another one. When I suggested that change, it was hard for Tazewell. His father was a jazz musician. During our conversations, I had to consider what I was asking of Tazewell. His response was immediately “No.” Then he thought about it. The next day he explained that his reply was too quick, and that he needed to confront his feelings to write that story.

Seattle Opera: What is your hope for the person experiencing Blue?

Jeanine Tesori: The goal for the person watching is to travel in the shoes of the characters they see on stage—to vest so heavily in the character’s victories and tragedies that they experience them as their own. That is what causes the audience to cry and laugh. The character’s story is the audience’s story. I think that my hope is that the opera is impactful to the point that a person in the audience will never forget what they just saw.

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