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Commissioned in 2015 for the Glimmerglass Festival and premiering in 2019, this ‘powerful’ (The New York Times) contemporary piece addresses issues around race and injustice. Blue asks ever-relevant questions of race, duty and the extent to which loyalty can hold before breaking. In Harlem, New York, an activist son clashes with his police officer father in this gripping and tragic story, which places the repercussions of police brutality on black families and communities at the centre of the opera.
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ENO Responders 22/23
The ENO’s UK premiere of Blue, a contemporary opera exploring the lived experience of the African-American community in a society dominated by institutional racism, comes mere weeks after the shooting of black teen Ralph Yarl. Librettist Tazewell Thompson grounds the opera firmly in real life and at times reaches the genuinely poetic: when The Father (a policeman) is almost driven to violence by grief at the death of his son at a silent protest at the hands of another officer, his vengeful exclamation to the Reverend who attempts to console him brims with power – ‘the God you describe is a white God’. This works nicely with Alex Lowde’s reduced set that uses only the middle of the stage, producing much of the production’s claustrophobia.
Jeanine Tesori’s music contains moments of great power (fluidly handled by conductor Matthew Kofi-Waldren), but often does little to enhance the opera’s plot. Kenneth Kellog’s The Father and Nadine Benjamin’s The Mother contribute somewhat to redeeming the piece musically: Kellogg’s bass is rich, smooth, and impressively versatile, while Benjamin’s soprano, while not particularly nuanced, is smooth and assured. Their duets together, both musically and emotionally touching, are among the opera’s highlights. The chemistry and generational strife between Father and Son (Zwakele Tshabalala) is also electric, questioning the position of a black police officer serving in an institution that upholds white privilege is questioned sensitively and thought-provokingly.
However, despite many powerful depictions of an urgent social issue, the opera fundamentally fails to hang together . Much of this comes from how it is written: the vignettes that make it up are often too far apart to create a sense of continuity, and we see almost nothing from The Son’s birth until his argument as a 16 year-old. However, the production also does not help to redeem this: even the argument between father and son, full of potential for emotional poignancy, becomes stagey, as The Son breaks down in his father’s arms after yelling abuse at him. By contrast, the second act is interminably long, consisting only of two full scenes that drag on without adding much either to the story or the emotional weight of the opera. The gospel-style singing at the funeral here does not quite hit the mark, while the length of these scenes robs them of the pathos they possessed at their start. The decision not to depict The Son’s shooting in the opera, while intended to focus the audience on the grief of the family, also deprived the opera of energy it could ill afford to lose. While there were certainly moments of high tension (for instance, The Father’s rage in Church and his bitter use of the n-word with the Reverend), ultimately, the urgency of theme in Craig’s production is not matched by its energy or structure.
Set in Harlem, ‘Blue’ tells the story of a Black family, who lose their son to police violence. Contemporary works strive for relevance and, no matter when this premiered, there unfortunately would have been simultaneous real-life parallels. The emotional impact, however, seems to come from the context of life in 2023, rather than any amazing storytelling.
Jeanine Tesori joined us in the audience for the UK premiere of her work. Political jokes thread through Tazewell Thompson’s libretto, provoking more laughter than expected from such a heavy topic. On her operatic directorial debut, Tinuke Craig’s production leaves much to be desired. Most of the performance took place within a box: an alternating portrait and landscape television screen. Although occasionally effective, feeding into the sense of claustrophobia that The Son feels in his room, the overall effect is quite bland. Going into the second act, the box becomes increasingly lop-sided – I began to feel rather sea-sick for Nadine Benjamin as it rotated.
For too long, the closest we’ve got to ‘fusion’ has been sugar-coated cultural appropriation (Puccini and pentatonic scales come to mind). Reading of Tesori’s background in musical theatre left me sceptical, but I was pleasantly surprised. She brings a jazz and gospel soundworld to a familiar opera structure. Although built from arias, duets and ensembles, Tesori’s writing is full of originality – I never thought I’d hear three unison sopranos sing the phrase ‘Damn girl’ with so much vibrato. Female and male quartets respectively bring a level of warmth unique to voices. In general, the music is interesting, but not at the expense of being listenable.
At first, it’s hard to differentiate the orchestra from external sound effects. Psycho-esque wailing string glissandi sat above rumbling timpani, later replaced by drum kit. Former ENO Mackerras Fellow Matthew Kofi-Waldren’s fluid gesture steered the cast well.
Nadine Benjamin was simply outstanding. A former ENO Harewood artist, the soprano adapted seamlessly to this unique role – quite far from her equally impressive 2022 performance of La Bohème’s ‘Mimí’. Kenneth Kellogg’s confidence makes it clear that he was the originator of the role. Having sung ‘The Father’ in six opera houses worldwide, this marks his debut with the company. Young talent of such importance to the ENO, and this is once again manifested through South African tenor Zwakele Tshabalala. The current Harewood Artist took the stage for the second time this season, following his appearance in Jake Heggie’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.
There’s no doubt that the message of ‘Blue’ is highly important but does it succeed as an opera? Most 20th century music is rooted in some form of political turmoil, but the art remains centre stage – the same can’t be said for Tesori’s opera.
A revolving rectangle on stage to show the revolving nature of Harlem, New York is perhaps the most engaging aspect of this UK premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s acclaimed Blue. For an opera that aims to dive into deep issues of race, injustice, and police brutality, told through the lens of a warring father and son, it has a weak grip on the narrative it wants to tell. Tinuke Craig’s direction, their operatic debut, lacks an awareness of the stage and its space – for a cast of only ten performers, their movements and transitions felt subdued on the deep Coliseum stage.
What opens Blue is a trio of girlfriends proclaiming that ‘thou shalt not bring forth Black boys into this world’, setting a dark tone against an upbeat score reminiscent of jazz and scat. The Mother, who remains unnamed as all the other figures of the Father, Son, and Reverend are left as tropes too, promises a beacon of optimism that is brilliantly conveyed in soprano Nadine Benjamin’s soulful melodies. However, Thompson’s libretto stilts this fluidity in favour of often relayed phrases of injustice that have little sticking power – dialogue between characters is diluted in favour of long and over-indulgent basslines that drown performers’ voices.
Given that this is an opera aimed at bringing the complex dynamics of a father-son relationship to life as they clash over the Father’s police officer role and the Son’s activist activities, they have only one scene together at the end of Act One. Despite Zwakele Tshabalala’s fiercely enthusiastic attempts to rail against injustice as The Son, he lacks the swagger of a teenage firecracker whereas Kenneth Kellogg’s Father’s smooth bass overpowers him when the conflict is supposed to be on even ground.
Even Alex Lowde’s set design of a messy teenage bedroom, with scrawls of activists Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey’s names aimed at curating a passion for the Son’s protests pales when the voices can conjure up little sympathy among the audience. Similarly, the costumes reduce the performers to sums of their parts, lacking two-dimensional portrayals of the pain, grief, and trauma that racial injustice and police brutality brings.
There is little chemistry between the family members, which makes the consequent solos from the principals as holding any love for each other hard to believe. This is only emphasised by the lack of shared scenes between the family on stage, once again reducing the performers to soloists instead of as an ensemble.
Not even Tesori’s sweeping bars can evoke intense emotion in this opera, and while Matthew Kofi Waldren’s collaborative conducting over the smaller scale orchestra does bring a steadiness to an otherwise displaced production, Blue becomes lost in its narrative.
Opera – with its epic proportions – best encapsulates the scope and depth of emotion required for a piece like Blue. Premiering in the UK for the first time, in a production by Tinuke Craig, Blue follows a Black couple and their community as they navigate the death of their son at the hands of the police. Act 1 establishes the immense love of the family for The Son; Act 2 explores their near-insurmountable grief at his murder.
Composer Jeanine Tesori has likened the story of Blue to that of the ancient Greek tragedies; the inevitability of police violence – and the fate of the young Black son – is signalled from the very beginning. Fingers slide over strings in siren-like whines as a white beam scans the stage like a searchlight. Much of the action takes place in a box inside a larger circle, upon which flash video projections of desolate landscapes, reminiscent of first-person shooter video games. In Act 2 the circle spins as The Mother collapses against its walls. The Mother’s world, and the wheel of fortune, are turned on their head as the Fates cut their threads.
The epic was balanced, however, against the mundane every day. The trios of The Mother’s and The Father’s friends teased and jostled one another as their voices blended in harmonies which managed to capture the sounds of happy gossiping. Original cast members Kenneth Kellogg and Zwakele Tshabalala as The Father and The Son brilliantly evoke the fractious dynamic between a police officer and his activist child. After his son’s death, Kellogg’s performance reaches its best as he confronts The Reverend (a well-sung Ronald Samm) with his too-late realisations and vengeful wrath.
The stand-out however was Nadine Benjamin as The Mother. Her voice delightfully slipped into soul intonations for ‘I’m Gonna Strap My Baby to My Back’ and her prayerful aria ‘God, Give Me Back Any Part of My Baby’ was heart-breaking. Much of this is due to Tazewell Thompson’s libretto; repeated lines like ‘I will lay my burden down’ – with its gospel resonances – became increasingly moving when combined with Tesori’s emotive score. The libretto also introduces words and terms rarely heard in opera, from colloquialisms like ‘damn, girl’ and ‘touchdown’ to The Father’s use of the n-word.
All this adds to the feeling that Blue is urgent and real, a call to compassion – and anger. Only a few weeks ago, teenager Ralph Yarl was shot in the head when he accidentally knocked on the wrong door to pick up his younger siblings. Blue speaks to the pain of these experiences. Conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, the orchestra and the fantastic cast powerfully captured this shared grief. In short, Blue is a masterclass in political art.
Jeanine Tesori’s Blue comes to ENO for its UK premiere, a moving anti-racist statement about police violence against people of colour. Blue being the colour of sadness from the death of a child to a police shooting on a silent protest; or the colour of the police uniform worn by his father; or from blues, a style that has its roots in the systemic issues explored by Tazewell Thompson’s libretto and music in Tesori’s score.
Tesori makes excellent use of the orchestral palette to paint a highly varied soundworld, and bombastic percussion makes way for velvet strings within the blink of an eye. The inspiration of the great 20th-century American composers is apparent; the long harmonies in the opening and dance motifs call to mind Copland’s Appalachian Spring with the addition of gruelling extended techniques on the piano bringing a disturbing. Matthew Kofi Waldren made the score come to life by acting as an emotional guide for his orchestra, pacing the music to make Tesori’s climaxes pack a powerful punch.
The cast has a challenge in the tonal whiplash between the two halves; the wild and joyful life of parents bringing a child into the world whose life is brutally cut short, making the jovial and sometimes comedic tone of the first half seem almost out of place. Pacing and tone are definite weaknesses here but our take them in their stride and still deliver great performances, helped by Tinuke Craig’s direction.
Kenneth Kellogg sang The Father (none of our characters have names) for the third time after the Glimmerglass opera’s premiere in 2019. His powerful voice and conviction for keeping his family safe juxtaposed the youthful idealism of his Son (Zwakele Tshabalala), who had some fantastic moments together on stage. Nadine Benjamin enjoyed herself playing The Mother, featuring swaying hips, a glowing smile and a baby bump to round things off. Benjamin had brilliant chemistry with her Girlfriends (Chanáe Curtis, Sarah-Jane Lewis and Idunnu Münch), landing some chortlingly funny moments in the opening scene and throughout. The Reverend (Ronald Samm) brought solace to the darker side of this opera, comforting his congregation during the funeral that makes up most of the second half.
I was not entirely convinced by Alex Lowde’s set in conjunction with Ravi Deepres’ video design. A bold, rotating minimalist centrepiece that evokes something out of 1982’s Tron, with projections helping to fill out the scene. The distorted images and video fell flat in this production, a creative gambit that didn’t hit its mark. By trying to be a home, a hospital, and then a church, it managed to be none. Blue is a beautifully performed opera with an imaginative soundworld that has suffered from some glitches with pacing and set design.
“Say their names!” protestors cry at Black Lives Matter rallies, invoking the names of Michael Brown, George Floyd, and Breanna Taylor, all Black Americans who died unjustly at the hands of police. In Blue—which tells the story of a family in Harlem torn apart when their activist son is shot while protesting unarmed by a white police officer—there are no names, just “Father,” “Mother,” and (the name we should be shouting) “Son.” The message is clear: this could be any Black family in America. That father is also a cop adds a further irony.
Through close collaboration, playwright Tazewell Thompson and Tony-nominated Jeanine Tesori crafted a harrowing tale of racialised police brutality as if it were a Greek tragedy. Kenneth Kellogg (The Father), returning to Blue in the role he originated at the opera’s premiere, conveys the simmering frustrations of arguments with his son with an expertly restrained bass that boils over into Act 2’s controlled rage. Nadine Benjamin’s (The Mother’s) expectant soprano in pregnancy descends into fraught, full-bodied bawling in the opera’s tragic arc. Zwakele Tshabalala (The Son), angry at the political state of the world, reveals only in the devastatingly poignant flashback Epilogue his dreams for the future, about to be tragically cut short.
The chorus of Girlfriends act like the three fates, beginning with chatty and endearing teasing of their pregnant friend and ending with stern condemnations of the dangers ahead: “You married a cop?” and “Thou shalt bring forth no Black boys into this world.” Three male fates similarly joke with The Father-to-be through football jock-talk that takes a serious tone at the real-world stakes ahead for The Son.
Tinuke Craig’s production shrinks the stage to the size of a living room, a self-contained box centre-stage. Disorientating projections of busy streets swirl around domestic scenes, invoking the ever-present threat of the outside world. Craig’s staging is effective, but too tightly contained.
Despite heavy themes, the opera finds moments to let loose. Thompson peppers Act One with jokes and colloquialisms: “Damn, Girl!” Tesori infuses the orchestral score with jazzy brass and drums, while Craig directs the fates to swing along in time. It is all idiomatically performed by ENO’s Orchestra, directed skillfully by Matthew Kofi Waldren.
However, biting writing and a sweeping score cannot corral the story from falling flat. Blue is undoubtedly poignant, but I found myself forging emotional connections with political ideas of social justice, rather than individual characters. Perhaps the strength of Blue comes from the experiences we bring to the theatre.
Tesori spoke of the “Third Act,” in a BBC Radio 4 interview ahead of Blue’s UK premiere at ENO. The Third Act, she said, is how the performance lives on in our minds after the curtain drops. When the details fade away, when the damp humour of Act One and the numbed emotions of Act Two recede, when the audience enters Act Three, on trains home, in conversations with friends, and in memories of family, Blue finds its true power.
If you managed to nab tickets for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Phoenix Theatre, you will have noticed that the play’s infamous rape scene was depicted symbolically rather than literally. Paul Mescal’s Stanley got on all fours and became the animal Blanche knew he always was.
This is part of an ongoing discussion about what acts of violence should be depicted in art, which Blue engages in. The themes of Jeanine Tesori’s opera are more pressing than ever at its UK premiere, three years since debuting. Featuring an all black cast, it follows a Harlem family: The Mother (Nadine Benjamin), The Father (Kenneth Kellogg) and The Son (Zwakele Tshabalala). Blue’s key conflict is one of ideals between The Father, a policeman, and The Son, an activist. Tinuke Craig’s new production for ENO unfolds mostly inside a rectangular box, a reminder that much police brutality discourse is mediated through screens.
Blue’s plot is ultimately what doesn’t happen. Its climax – The Son’s death by a policeman’s trigger – is unseen. The murder happens while we are going to the toilet in the interval. This is like how the bloodshed of Greek tragedy plays out in the skene: a building where it cannot be seen.
Act 1 is a long, long introduction to what’s framed as an ordinary black American family. I think this is to emphasise their normality, but the scenes are so mundane that they are boring, trading off artistic merit for moral value. Luckily, Tazewell Thompson’s funny libretto props it up. He freely uses African American Vernacular English, which co-signs its legitimacy and earns big laughs when The Mother’s girlfriends sing, ‘Damn, girl!’ in harmony.
Tesori’s score borrows from several black American styles of music. Blues, jazz and more are well integrated into the orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s baton. But the music occasionally leaves the singers constricted: the only way Tesori conveys tension is with a sustained vocal note. After the nth time, it loses its effect.
Act 2 offers more to chew on. Although it (still…) lacks drama, the family’s protracted crumbling is moving. The Reverend (Ronald Samm) brings the suffering of the African American spiritual to his voice in his attempt to turn The Father from vengeful fixation to prayer. He then leads the ensemble at The Son’s funeral in a goosebump-inducing rendition of ‘Lay My Burden Down’. Benjamin always sings beautifully, delivering the joy of The Mother expectant in Act 1 as well as she does her pain in Act 2.
Against the temptation to label it so, Blue is not tragedy. The only fatal flaws are societal, not individual; the only hubris is that of The Father and The Son, who both want to better the world; most damningly, Blue’s sorrow offers no resolution but only further suffering. This is an opera with an important message, marred by a transatlantic obsession with morals. Everyone this side of the pond did exceptionally, but unfortunately Blue is far more suited to the pulpit than the auditorium.
The issues of contemporary society are not often the concern of opera. Perhaps this needs to change; Blue written by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson made its UK premiere at ENO after much acclaim Stateside and focuses on the horror of police brutality through one family’s heart-breaking journey.
This is a tale of pain and violence that lays under the skin of America. Tesori’s score is full of deep warmth when depicting a hopeful family but isn’t afraid to veer into an almost startling dissonance to reflect the devastation and tragedy in the second act. The score could be a history of the last hundred years, with clear influences from blues, jazz, gospel and bebop providing a sense of unity and counter cultural defiance throughout the piece.
Nadine Benjamin plays the pregnant mother whose friends are giddy with excitement but are terrified of the life awaiting a young black child in Harlem. Benjamin is an excellent soprano, and she provides a hugely emotional performance as someone who goes through unimaginable loss. Kenneth Kellogg plays her husband; he excels in both his initial portrayal of the terrified but elated young father to the apparent voice of the oppressor to his wayward child. The first act builds to a confrontation with his angry and resentful son, played by Zwakele Tshabalala, who manages to capture a sense of youthful rebellion whilst also raging at his father, who he feels is complicit in an oppressive system through his role as a police officer. Where the majority of the first act is a joyful study of a community filled with hesitant optimism, the second act is an examination of grief, and it is deeply affecting in its all too familiar depiction of police murder.
Violence itself is missing from the production. We don’t witness the brutal killing and we are left sharing the son’s anger in our impotent sense of helplessness. The characters remain unnamed, and the story unfolds through a series of operatic dialogues between them which helps contribute to a distinct lack of tension. The staging also fails to contribute to the drama, most of the action happens in a vertically rotating set which is often set at an angle during scenes in a weak metaphor for disunity. The effect of the dramatic influences is to memorialise the murder. During the opera’s most moving scene, in which the mother is rotated along with the set, the staging gives strong connotations of our inability to stop these violent incidents repeating themselves and the final scene is of the adult family together watched on by funeral spectators. Whilst a sense of memorial is important, I feel that the opera wants to be more than a monument to suffering and loss. I was never sure if Blue was supposed to be a character study, call to arms or an exploration of our own personal responsibility. As a tribute it is vital and timely, but this could have been so much more.
If to be in a brown study is to look thoughtful, then the protagonist of ENO’s new production: ‘The Dead City’ is an exceptionally thoughtful man indeed. The only parts of his life not suffused with the colour are the relics of his dead wife.
The Dead city (Die tote Stadt) is Erich Korngold’s 1920 ode to nostalgia. Based on a book by Georges Rodenbach it is considered one of the last great romantic operas. Dead City delves into the mind of Paul, a widower living in Bruges who is mourning his wife Marie. The opera does not have much in the traditional sense of drama with the majority of the action being essentially a dream sequence as Paul wrestles internally between devotion to the dead and his new obsession with the dancer Marietta. Marietta is intended to be a doppelganger for Marie but in this production the two could not look less alike, making Paul come across as obsessive not mournful.
The story’s laser focus on loss is reflected in the score, the emotional tone remains locked in strife and the mists of nostalgia. Expansive chords thoroughly explore Paul’s elegiac wistfulness and evoke a Bruges described by Rodenbach as a ‘soulscape,’ but rarely approach sounds more uplifting than bittersweet. Korngold is often compared to Puccini but he lacks the latter’s striking melodies, more reminiscent of Mahler’s symphonic works.
Designer Miriam Buether has created a Swiss Army Knife set, everything seems to lift up and reveal secrets behind each corner. Unfortunately when you’ve seen the tiny scissors once, the novelty wears off. The initially striking changes soon become repetitive, such as a funeral procession which is doing laps of Paul’s house. The original book and staging have Paul going out into the city of Bruges, a variety which would have been welcome.
Paul is played by dramatic tenor Rolf Romei, the role is a vast sing, Romei rarely if ever left stage. Romei sung beautifully, but missed some of the real gut wrenching sadness. I couldn’t make my mind up if his stage work was deliberately or unintentionally awkward, Romei juts around stage like a Lego man doing the robot, forearms at a steady 60o. Soprano Allison Oakes plays Paul’s new romance, Marietta. After an unsteady start, Oakes soared in this role dominating the stage every time she came on. Her character and voice are the only light in the opera and staging.
At an hour and 40 minutes until the interval, the first part of this performance is a real strain on the buttocks. I struggled to engage with this production (perhaps fortunately given the topic). If this was nostalgia and grief it was like none I have known.