Review: Pittsburgh Opera Presents “Blue”

Riveting Social Justice Opera Packs a Wallop  

By George B. Parous

Pittsburgh Opera is ending its 2021-’22 season with performances of Blue, and the work received its local premiere Saturday night, April 23, at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center auditorium. Closed streets and the bustle of a beautiful summer-like evening made navigation to the hall a challenge, and the curtain was some minutes late in going up due to late arrivals. It was worth it to see how few empty seats were available, both upstairs and down. Best of all, the large audience continued what seems to be a growing inclination on the part of such local gatherings; the final curtain was applauded down, after everyone connected with the production had been brought onto the stage, but the ovation kept coming until the curtain stayed down and lights were turned on. The performance deserved the enthusiasm, but the almost “New York” style receptions heard consistently over recent months have been encouraging just the same. And this in a season where contemporary, anything-but-conventional operas outnumbered the classics three to two.

The story of Blue is one that demands the contemporary sound of modern operas, quite unlike their ages’ old counterparts. It’s a gripping story ripped from present-day tragedies, and demands a “current sound.” Composer Jeanine Tesori  expresses it in words I could never find after a single hearing. “Our objective is to challenge audience assumptions by going against the grain,” she stated, in comments originally published by Dutch National Opera. “For instance, Blue opens with a very pared-down scene, in which an African American 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 draw their own conclusions, without being told which direction to head in. This is true of the music as well: most people observing a large choir of Black singers in a church, will expect to hear gospel – but this was not [librettist] 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.”

Librettist Tazewell Thompson – who also directs this production of Blue, quoted in the same publication, said: “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, and reminds audiences that police brutality headlines come with a lot of pain and suffering that doesn’t just end when replaced by 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 the 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.”

While the average American operagoer has seen few or no operas that reflect personal experience, Blue has a story to tell – quite effectively spanning about seventeen years in two acts of a very cleverly written libretto surrounded at almost all times by appropriate sounding music. Much is static discord, of course, but not all of it. As Mr. Thompson has also pointed out, there are moments of cheerful levity – including a few hearty laughs and hopes for a better future. His libretto is well crafted, and demands clear enunciation of its text. Luckily the cast can provide the last in all but the most full-throttled ensembles, but this is a problem that has to be overcome in many operas, contemporary or otherwise. The text is very “singable,” and Tesori’s music is molded around the words in a way that makes lyric clarity possible. While the opera is sung in English, of course, with the text projected above the stage, most listeners might find themselves paying more than usual attention to the singers and action on stage. And that’s always a great big check for the “pro” column.  Conductor Glenn Lewis led the reduced number of instrumentalists through a tight-sounding interpretation of what appeared to be a very demanding score.

The Father (Kenneth Kellogg, in uniform) shares the news of his sons’ birth with his friends (Andrew Turner, Ernest C. Jackson, and Yazid Gray)

The  amount of vocal talent on the stage was quite overwhelming, with many of the main characters sung and acted by the same singing actors who created the roles at Blue’s Glimmerglass Festival’s world premiere in 2019. Among these were bass Kenneth Kellogg, whose voice and acting abilities as The Father came as a revelation after hearing him but briefly in The Summer King five years ago. He might well have walked off with the evening’s honors, if he hadn’t teamed up with baritone Gordon Hawkins (creator of The Reverend) in Act II, when the two of them thrilled in a tag-team scene that was vocally, dramatically and musically one of the best of the evening, and certainly one of the best I’ve heard and seen in years. The intensity of their first scene was rivaled by their scene later in the act – a long silent embrace. Another outstanding singer among the original cast was mezzo-soprano Briana Elyse Hunter as the Mother. She has a voice of warmth and power, but can float the most delicate pianissimo tones to the last aisle in the balcony. Her acting skills are strong, and we can hope she’ll return to our city soon. The young tenor Aaron Crouch, who created The Son, has been to Pittsburgh before, as Jupiter in the Semele masked production. He was heard and seen to much better advantage last night.

The Mother (Briana Elyse Hunter, second from left) is visited by her girlfriends (Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Ariana Wehr, and Adrianna Cleveland) during her pregnancy

Brazilian-American soprano, Ariana Wehr, was the last of the original cast members on hand, and she has a powerful soprano voice and provided many of the evening’s amusing moments. With mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottom and soprano Adrianna Cleveland, they formed a charming trio of friends of The Mother, Congregants of the Church, and, for Ms. Wehr, a nurse who has apparently never seen a “Quiet – Hospital Zone” sign before. Similar male roles were taken by Resident Artists Andrew Turner (Policeman 1/Congregant 1), Yazid Gray (Policeman 3/Congregant 3) and newcomer Ernest C. Jackson (Policeman 2/Congregant 2). A charming little person named Roman Williams seemed to enjoy his silent stage debut, and looked over the audience in amazement at ovation time.

Family dinner – The Father (Kenneth Kellogg), The Son (Aaron Crouch), and The Mother (Briana Elyse Hunter)

Blue is a production that you should catch if you can. There’s an unmistakable “something” in the air when a cast is pouring its all, heart and soul, into a performance. And that something in the air could be cut with a knife last night.

The Reverend (Gordon Hawkins) comforts the grieving parents (Kenneth Kellogg and Briana Elyse Hunter)

For a complete synopsis, full production details, tickets and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera. There are seats remaining for the additional performances of the run, but if you want to see the production, it’s highly recommended that you grab the tickets you can while they’re still to be had.

The Artistic Team for Blue

Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Stage Director, Tazewell Thompson; Associate Director, Cindy C. Oxberry; Assistant Stage Director, Kaley Karis Smith; Scenery Designer, Donald Eastman; Costume Designer, Jessica Jahn; Wig and Make-up Designer, Izear Winfrey; Lighting Designer, Eric Norbury; Original Lighting Designer, Robert Wierzel; Asst. Lighting Designer, Todd Nonn; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight; Asst. Stage Manager, Phil Gold;  Asst. Stage Manager, Hannah Nathan; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka

David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera

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