Opera to explore police shootings, race relations

Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival 

From left, Kenneth Kellogg as The Father, Aaron Crouch as The Son and Briana Hunter as The Mother are shown in a rehearsal for “Blue.” 

When news of black people’s deaths involving police grabbed the public's attention in 2015 — including a string of high-profile losses such as Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown and Eric Garner — the Glimmerglass Festival’s response was to commission a new opera.

That opera, “Blue,” will have its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown this summer, and opens Sunday.

“I’ve always felt arts organizations have a responsibility to explore contemporary issues,” Glimmerglass Artistic Director Francesca Zambello said in a prepared statement, adding that she commissioned the opera with the specification that it inspires dialogue about race and police violence in America.

The Glimmerglass Festival attracts emerging and established artists from all over the country each summer. “Blue” is helmed by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson.

Tesori’s music credits include Broadway hits “Fun Home,” “Shrek the Musical,” “Caroline or Change” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” This summer, she’s been shuffling between Cooperstown and the film set of Steven Spielberg’s remake of ‘West Side Story,” for which she is the vocal coach.

Librettist and director Thompson is an internationally known opera and theater director. He has written plays, but “Blue” is his first libretto. (The libretto of an opera contains the words and stage direction). The story is about an average middle-class black family whose teenage son is shot by a police officer.

“I knew that I wanted it to be about a family that would be affected by the death of their child at the hands of a police officer, and how this tragedy would affect the family, the church, the community,” Thompson said on a rehearsal break. “I knew I didn’t want it to be an indictment on police officers or an opera about police brutality, and I didn’t want to write a polemic or stand on a soap box and be judgmental. I wouldn’t be interested in that and that wouldn’t ignite me to write a story.”

The goal for Thompson, he said, is for audience members to feel empathy when they come to the performance and to show how a family and community cope after the headlines disappear.

“I’m hoping the audience will come face-to-face, heart-to-heart, and soul-to-soul with a human family wounded and trapped in a tragedy and discover on their own their capacity to emphasize and try to, for the two hours they’re watching the opera, to try to live in this family’s skin,” he said.

The main character “Father,” a police officer, is played by Kenneth Kellogg, a Washington, D. C.-based professional opera singer, who had just had a son of his own when he signed on to the project.

“It was the perfect piece for the moment in my life,” Kellogg said. “My son is 4 now, and four years ago it seemed to be every other day we were hearing about police shootings. .... ‘Blue’ gave me this new hope for opera and the stories that need to be told.”

In addition to “Blue,” this year’s Glimmerglass Festival includes the popular “La Traviata” and “Show Boat,” and speakers such as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among other events.

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