New Opera Takes On The Tragedy Of Police Brutality The new opera by Tazewell Thompson and Jeanine Tesori tells the story of a couple in Harlem who are forced to confront their teenage son's sudden death by police violence.

New Opera 'Blue' Takes On The Tragedy Of Police Brutality

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Opera is an art form well-suited to big emotions and tragic stories. Most are set in the past, but a new opera, "Blue," which premiered at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., takes on a contemporary tragedy - the killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of a police officer. Jeff Lunden has this report.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: "Blue" starts in silence. A young black man in a hoodie is center stage.

KENNETH KELLOGG: It's bigger than the hoodie, you know.

LUNDEN: Kenneth Kellogg plays him.

KELLOGG: It's a black man in a hoodie that's the issue.

LUNDEN: While ominous music plays, the young man is slowly surrounded by police. Is he going to be arrested? Is there going to be violence? No. He takes off the hoodie, changes his clothes and puts on a police uniform - a black man in blue.

KELLOGG: It sets an interesting tone for what's to come.

LUNDEN: Tazewell Thompson has written a libretto as well as directed "Blue." What's to come is an opera that takes on an elemental story about race in America. A young black couple falls in love and has a baby boy.


KELLOGG: (As character) My son, my little baby boy...

LUNDEN: His son becomes a rebellious teenager.


AARON CROUCH: (As character) Got my own private (unintelligible) locked down.

LUNDEN: And he's shot and killed by a police officer at a protest. The second act of the opera explores the aftermath.

TAZEWELL THOMPSON: I knew that I wanted to write the story behind the story of the headline.

LUNDEN: Again, Tazewell Thompson.

THOMPSON: That was in my head all along. That was in my heart. That was in my system. I wanted that story - how it affects the family. I really wanted to get to know the parents. I wanted to get to know, who do the parents go to? Do they go to the church? How does the church respond? And what about their closest friends?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori has written the score for "Blue." When she and Tazewell Thompson began working on the opera, she suggested the father - none of the characters have names - be a police officer.

JEANINE TESORI: I haven't seen many stories about African American police officers and the incredible challenge that they face. And it's also Tazewell's story. This is deeply Tazewell's story.

LUNDEN: Tazewell Thompson lives in Harlem, where the opera is set. And he's had his own run-ins with the police.

THOMPSON: In my own neighborhood, I was frisked slammed against the wall. And then I had another incident where police officers surrounded me in a subway, and there was a mistaken identity. But I was scared. One police officer had his hand on his holster. And then when they realized they had the wrong person, they didn't say, oh, we're sorry. They said, stay out of trouble.

LUNDEN: In the opera, the son is embarrassed that his father is a police officer, and they bicker. But the father wants him to be safe and gives him, quote, "the talk" about how to behave when he sees a cop.


KELLOGG: (As character) In your life, that's what you're supposed to do.

LUNDEN: Thompson spoke with both black police officers and parents as he wrote the opera.

THOMPSON: Every parent that I interviewed - black parents - they have this talk with their sons at a very young age.


KELLOGG: (As character) Take off the hoodie. Take off the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie. Son, you are black - a walking moving target - a black boy.

CROUCH: (As character) That's exactly what I am.

LUNDEN: But despite the talk, the son becomes a victim of police violence. It deliberately happens offstage, says composer Jeanine Tesori.

TESORI: We always knew we didn't want this. This mustn't be on stage. But it really is about possibility denied and the aftermath and the costs and the consequence for everyone and that you understand the ripple effect.

BRIANA HUNTER: Performing this comes at a cost, I think, to all of us. It's one that we all think is worth paying.

LUNDEN: Mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter plays the anguished mother in "Blue."

HUNTER: Very rarely do we get to so directly communicate our feelings about what's going on in the world. It's allowed us to kind of grieve and process a lot of trauma.

LUNDEN: And she says she hopes audiences who see the opera can process those feelings, too. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

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