Tazewell Thompson
Text: Jasmijn van Wijnen | Photo: Fabian Obispo

‘The libretto I wrote for Blue was my personal letter to the world’

21 March 2022

A conversation with composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist and director Tazewell Thompson about the opera Blue.

Tazewell: “When Jeanine Tesori picked me as the librettist for a project about race in the US, I knew I was going to write a story that centred on the continuous, countless and unjustified killings of unarmed Black Americans by mostly white police officers. There isn’t a Black man in the US today who hasn’t had some sort of encounter or conflict with a police officer, whether it be minor or traumatic and violent.”

Jeanine: “After several conversations with Tazewell, who also drew on his own personal experiences, we decided to create an opera that would tell the story of a Black family living in Harlem. I knew Tazewell’s portrayal would be nuanced, without compromising the complexity of the characters or the story. This is why the father’s character was depicted as a police officer or in keeping with Tazewell’s apt wording: a ‘Black man in Blue’. The father’s identity as a ‘Black man in Blue’ is complicated and fraught with tension. He puts his life on the line on a daily basis, but his family members – especially his activist son – don’t consider him a hero when he comes home at the end of the day. We felt that was a story worth telling.”

Tazewell: Blue is an intimate portrayal of a Black family living in Harlem, whose world is ripped apart when they become victims of a gross injustice. The opera exposes the systemic racism that seeps into everyday American life like poison, reminding audiences that police brutality headlines come with a lot of pain and suffering that doesn’t just end when replaced with the latest breaking news. Blue is a story that needs to be told in the opera world. It is so important for all of us to see operas that don’t necessarily reflect our own personal experiences. In this way, we may surprise ourselves by detecting relatable elements or if there are none, we can ask ourselves what we have learned from this story.”

JEanine Tesori
Jeanine Tesori | Photo: Rodolfo Martinez

Jeanine: “Our objective is to challenge audience assumptions by going against the grain. For instance, Blue opens with a very pared-down scene, in which a black man stands in silence before the audience. It is important to me to challenge a viewer’s expectations, but it is equally imperative that I do so in a manner that lets the audience members draw their own conclusions, without being told which direction to head in. This is true of music as well: most people observing a large choir of black singers in a church, will expect to hear gospel – but this was not Tazewell’s experience. I therefore decided to compose hymn-like chorales and choral music, that generally do not rely on counterpoint, but are more about singing together collectively in harmony. We did not want to depict the church as a brick building, but rather as a warm and loving community that – when united in song – has a similar effect to a hug in that it gets you through hard times.”

Tazewell: “While Blue definitely tackles some heavy and painful subjects, it also offers hope. There are some wonderfully heartening moments in this opera, such as the cheerful scene in which the mother tells her friends she is expecting a baby; or the bar scene in which the young father shares his good news with his boisterous colleagues and friends; or the clash between the father and his rebellious son, who fight like cat and dog to defend their emotional territory, but then clasp each other in a warm and compassionate embrace; or perhaps most moving of all: the church community and friends who reach out to and support the bereaved parents in their final goodbye to their son. Even though everyone’s hopes for the son’s future have been shattered, they all pray that one day everything will be different.”

Jeanine Tesori

American composer Jeanine Tesori is active in the fields of opera, musical and theatre music. She has five successful Broadway musicals to her name, including the Tony Award-winning international hit Fun Home.

Tazewell Thompson

Tazewell Thompson is an American opera director and playwright. He has won the 2006 NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Theatre Award for his production of Porgy and Bess.