‘I’ve been all over the world for work, but this apartment overlooking the Amstel is my most beautiful address in years. I’m never going home again!’ The American director Tazewell Thompson (74) is in Amsterdam for the European premiere of blue. Before his working day at the Dutch National Opera starts, he tells in a telephone conversation what this opera about police brutality against the black population means to him.
Thompson has a long track record as a stage and opera director. He has written plays about African-American historical figures such as Elizabeth Keckley, activist and tailor for Mary Todd Lincoln (wife of), investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, about whom he created an a cappella opera. bluea collaboration with the composer Jeanine Tesori, is his first libretto set to music.
‘I knew immediately what I wanted to write about. As a black man, I am deeply outraged by the many unarmed black men and boys being shot. And I have my own stories of ethnic profiling. I also wanted the story to take place in the predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem in New York, where I live.’
IN blue (after the color of the police uniform) the teenage son of a black officer is shot and killed by his white colleague during a demonstration. The opera had its world premiere in July 2019 at the Glimmerglass Festival; The piece became more relevant than ever the following year, when George Floyd was killed and the activist group Black Lives Matter grew into a global movement.
blue fits into the policy of the Dutch National Opera (DNO), which strives for a more diverse programming. And DNO is not the only company with this goal in mind: On 17 November, the Concertgebouw is organizing a symposium on how the world of classical music can become less white and more inclusive.
Fact about blue is inextricably linked to everyday African-American reality, but Thompson wanted to tell a universal story. “I deliberately chose a middle-class family with devoted and responsible parents. Not a problem family,’ he says. ‘Everyone recognizes the image of a father and mother holding their newborn baby in the hospital. And the grief of an entire community when a young person dies.’
The story begins with a woman telling her friends that she is pregnant. Their caveats – ‘You shall not wear black boys’ and oh, the father is a police officer – cannot stifle her joy. Sixteen years later, her artistic, activist son is at odds with his father. He dies between the opera’s two acts. Thompson deliberately does not show the violence.
‘I have a strong opinion about what can be seen explicitly in the media. I don’t want to see women beaten or raped or children abused on stage. Greek tragedies are very violent, but as a spectator you hear about the violence without witnessing it. The audience’s imagination is much stronger than what I can make happen on stage.’
And Thompson inherits another element from the ancient Greeks. “The three girlfriends look like a Greek chorus giving warning. They tell the mother that a black boy’s life is doomed from the start. Every black woman knows that.’
After the son’s death, the congregation welcomes the parents. ‘As the spiritual leader of the black community, the priest acts as choir director. Together with the congregation, he asks God: Why? Why are we always suspected and killed?’
Despite the tragedy, the libretto and eclectic score celebrate love and life. ‘The first part is joyful and festive, with a musical idiom borrowed from musicals, jazz and blues. In the second half, the music becomes more tragic and it all sounds more like an opera.
‘I thought it was important that the opera ends… – I don’t want to say happily, but with an epilogue, a memory where we see the family together. The mother overhears the father and son arguing in the next room and asks them to come, please, because she’s going to make them something special.’ She expresses her love in a poetic list of soul fooddishes that bring the family together.
Thompson has blue directed in several cities in the United States. For black singers, he says, singing in an opera so close to their own experiences is quite different from performing in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. ‘If you can sing lines like: ‘I’m black’ or ‘My son, you have to act different because you’re black’… Singers sometimes have to suddenly leave the rehearsal room because they get upset.
‘It still gets to be too much for me sometimes. Then I come home and I have to recover. It was a difficult story to write and it is still difficult to listen to.’