Jazz great Wayne Shorter mounts his first opera, with Esperanza Spalding's help Iconic jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter has completed a long-held dream, an opera based on the mythic Greek character Iphigenia, with help from singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding.

Wayne Shorter's operatic dream comes true, brought to life with Esperanza Spalding

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And now a story about lifelong dreams coming true. Tomorrow night, an opera by the 88-year-old jazz composer and saxophone player Wayne Shorter premieres in Boston. The opera is his first in a collaboration with 37-year-old bass player and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. WBUR's Andrea Shea reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL WARMUP)

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: On an early November morning at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a chamber ensemble, jazz trio and more than a dozen opera singers are finally rehearsing in the same room. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz acknowledges the LA-based jazz elder who couldn't make the trip.

LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ: Let's give it up for Wayne Shorter.

(CHEERING)

SHEA: It's actually taken decades to get here. Wayne Shorter first started thinking about a long-form, dramatic work as a 19-year-old music student at NYU. After graduating and two years in the Army, he went on to transform American music with other jazz pioneers, including Art Blakey, Miles Davis and the fusion group Weather Report.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER QUARTET'S "PLAZA REAL")

SHEA: This is Shorter on sax with his acoustic quartet that endured for two decades. Over all the years, though, opera lingered in the composer's imagination until he met bassist Esperanza Spalding.

WAYNE SHORTER: We started talking and talking and then she said, let's do it, come on.

ESPERANZA SPALDING: But I thought, damn, I'm sure Wayne has said this to other people, that he wants to make an opera. So the fact that momentum hasn't been generated to do that is problematic.

SHEA: When Shorter was hospitalized in 2018, realizing her mentor's opera became more urgent than ever.

SPALDING: I was like, OK, Wayne, like, in the dream of your life, anything can happen. What do you want? What do you want? And he said, I want to make real magic - no tricks.

SHORTER: I practice Buddhism, you know. There's one thing they say when you leave here, you should have no regrets. You have to finish everything you promise to finish, according to you discovering what your mission is.

SHEA: So Shorter and Spalding dove in, he composing, she crafting a libretto for an empowering opera called "Iphigenia" that would embody the collaborative, spontaneous spirit of jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "IPHIGENIA")

SPALDING: All the while Wayne was writing, so I was also encountering fragments of the music and feeling equally intimidated and terrified and invigorated and inspired, you know?

SHEA: Spalding and Shorter's piece disrupts an ancient Greek play by Euripides about King Agamemnon's plan to appease a goddess by killing his daughter. In the opera's first act, six Iphigenias relive their murders, one after the other, before the storytelling confronts the cycle of violence audiences have seen on stages over centuries.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "IPHIGENIA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) For beloved Greece, I give my flesh and blood (ph).

SHEA: The first-time opera writers enlisted a vast collective of artists, including executive creative producer Jeff Tang. He and Spalding founded an independent production company to foster the opera's radical experimentation. For example, Tang says, early on, the singers were asked to improvise.

JEFF TANG: Perfection is something that is demanded of opera singers. That concept does not exist in this project. I think Wayne would say it doesn't exist in jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "IPHIGENIA")

SHEA: Spalding thinks Shorter's deep compositional language has been overlooked outside of the jazz world. At Shorter's urging, she lends her voice to the mix as one of the opera's six Iphigenias.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "IPHIGENIA")

SPALDING: (As Iphegenia, vocalizing).

It might just be a convoluted delivery system for Wayne's music. And there's a message in the music, and I really just want audiences to receive that.

SHORTER: Life itself is the greatest opera, and to discover where you're going and all that, you have the right to do this discovering.

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

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