American composer Jeanine Tesori is one of the most prolific and celebrated woman composers in the history of theatre. Her work covers a broad spectrum of styles, for both the theatre and film, and she has a gift for evoking human emotion and experience in her compositions. Her opera Blue, to a libretto by Tazewell Thompson, will have its European premiere at Dutch National Opera in November.
Text: Jasmijn van Wijnen
Jeanine Tesori began her Broadway career in 1995, arranging the music for a revival of the musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Many Broadway and off-Broadway successes followed: five of Tesori’s Broadway musicals were nominated for a Tony Award, including Twelfth Night, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, or Change and Shrek the Musical, which could be seen in various places in the Netherlands in 2012 and 2013. In 2015, she finally won a Tony on her fifth nomination, for Best Original Score Written for the Theatre. This was for the musical Fun Home, a coming-of-age story based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. In 2020 Fun Home was also staged in the Netherlands.
In addition to musicals, Tesori writes music for films and the theatre. She is also an opera composer. 2010 saw the premiere of her opera A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, to a libretto by Tony Kushner, about the turbulent marriage between American playwright Eugene O’Neill and the actress Carlotta Monterey. Inspired by an actual incident that occurred in 1951, the opera begins amid a fierce argument over O’Neill’s insistence at keeping the heating turned down in their frigid Massachusetts home as a snowstorm rages outside.
In 2012, Tesori’s second opera The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, based on the book by Jeanette Winterson, premiered at the Washington National Opera. In this retelling of the Christmas story, the humble donkey is chosen above all other animals to carry Mary to Bethlehem.
Her latest opera, Grounded, will premiere at the Washington National Opera in 2023. It is an operatic adaptation of a monologue by George Brant, about a woman who returns to her job in the Air Force after having a child. Instead of flying again, she is forced to stay on the ground, operating drones.
‘The identity conflict of a ‘black man in blue’ provided material for an epic, dramatic story, which lent itself to operatic treatment’
The opera Blue is Tesori’s first collaboration with the writer and director Tazewell Thompson. Thompson described his libretto as his ‘letter to the world’, about the confrontations that every black man in America has had with (often white) police officers, occasionally with fatal consequences. Tesori is not a composer who sits behind her desk with a readymade libretto. She prefers to work closely with her librettists. In the in-depth conversations they have together, the characters slowly come to life. For example: initially, Thompson envisioned the father as a jazz saxophonist. It was Tesori who suggested making him a police officer – a black policeman whose son ends up being killed by a fellow officer. According to Tesori, the identity conflict of a ‘black man in blue’, a well-known trope in North America, provided material for an epic, dramatic story, which lent itself to operatic treatment. The idea of destiny came to play a major role in the opera, which poses the question: ‘Is the fate of a black man sealed from the beginning?’ In this way the opera took on something of the dramatic quality of an ancient Greek drama, with a male and female chorus made up of the parents’ friends.
A current issue
Blue had its world premiere in 2019 at the Glimmerglass Festival, which had asked Tesori and Thompson to create an opera about the role of racism in contemporary North American society. It didn’t take long before the two agreed that the opera should deal with police brutality against people of colour. And while this issue has long existed in the United States, the work immediately took on even greater relevance in the first years following its world premiere: in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement gained worldwide momentum after George Floyd, a black man, was choked to death in Minnesota by a white police officer. Shocking images of his protracted death went viral.
Jeanine Tesori’s music is characterized by great versatility: pop music stands alongside Janáček-worthy recitatives; soul rubs shoulder with gospel, jazz and folk-rock. Above all, Tesori knows how to infuse her music with a human emotional layer and to express what is hidden between the lines and beneath the surface. Speaking of her ability to compose for musical theatre, the playwright Tony Kushner said: ‘She understands or knows intuitively [...] what lies beneath the surface, where the real meaning of a piece can be found. I’ve never met anyone so open to that, or with such an intellectual grasp of human emotion. While that’s a good quality for anyone to have, the key is that she has this absolutely extraordinary ability to turn that into music.’ Thompson also endorses this characteristic quality of Tesori’s music-theatrical work, and he thinks he knows how she got it: ‘It’s all because she is so in touch with the world, always has her eyes open, looking, observing, getting involved.’
Thanks to Tesori’s talent for imbuing theatrical texts with human emotion, she is able to make Blue’s story relatable to everyone. She plumbs the depths of the characters’ emotions and then using her music to plant those emotions directly in the heart of the audience members.