'Blue:' Police brutality is theme of Michigan Opera Theatre outside shows in Detroit

September 07, 2021, 6:11 AM

"Ripped from the headlines" doesn't typically fit opera performances, but could describe an acclaimed new work coming to Detroit this weekend. 

"Blue" portrays the hopes and fears of a young Black couple raising a son in 21st century America. Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT) will stage it Saturday and Sunday nights at the riverside Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre, east of downtown on Atwater Street. (Ticket link below.)

(Graphic: Michigan Opera Theatre)

WDET posts this plot outline:

It tells the story of a modern-day family in Harlem. The father is an NYPD officer, which becomes a point of tension as his son grows more politically active and socially aware. It's an opera that digs into issues of police brutality and race, shining light on some of the hardest conversations we're having as a society in contemporary America.

MOT artistic director Yuval Sharon recently told WDET host Stephen Henderson:

"Opera can be about things that matter to us very urgently and importantly. … It's not about topicality, it's about opera as an art form that can really speak to where we are today."

Reviewers praised the two-act presentation after its summer 2019 premiere in Cooperstown, N.Y., which earned a best new opera award from the Music Critics Association of North America. Aaron Crouch as the 16-year-old son and Gordon Hawkins as a clergyman reprise those roles in Detroit as part of a six-member cast. 

Tenor singer Aaron Crouch, who earned priase as a police officer's son in the opera's premiere, reprises that role in Detroit. (Photos: Kareli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival)

"The opera 'Blue' is a portrait of a family in crisis, and the role the community plays in healing their pain," Hawkins, a baritone, says at his website. 

"'Blue' came across as powerful, as well as sadly timely," The New York Times said of the debut two years ago at the Glimmerglass Festival, whose director commissioned the work by librettist Tazewell Thompson. The composer is Jeanine Tesori, who also has scored four Broadway musicals.

Lawrence B. Johnson, a former Detroit News music critic reviewing the work at Classical Voice North America, said Tesori "subtly blends whiffs of jazz, blues and soul within a singable, engaging, and smartly expressive score."

Before Covid intervened, "Blue" was scheduled for two weeks of spring 2020 performances by the Washington National Opera in the capital, plus stagings in Chicago and New York's Lincoln Center last summer. Now, the Detroit stop is its second so far.

Here are more reactions to the 2019 debut:

♦ 'Hot button:' "Quite a few contemporary American operas strive to address the hot-button issues of our day, but few do it as resolutely as 'Blue.' ... As the premiere performance ended, the audience's sobs threatened to cover the music itself. We were all mourning a national tragedy."-- Fred Cohn, Opera News

♦ 'Elegant:' "Thompson ... has written one of the most elegant librettos I've heard in a long time. ... 'Blue' came across as powerful — as well as sadly timely." -- Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times

♦ 'Painfully visceral:' "Thompson’s lithe, cutting libretto unburdens itself from the documentary obligations of channeling headlines to render the suffering of a single family as something gracefully grave, painfully visceral and often beautiful. ...
"The tragedy is that you know how it ends — which is to say, it won't. As such, 'Blue' feels more timeless than timely, and more tragic as a result." -- Michael Andor Brodeur, The Washington Post

♦ 'Eminently convincing:' "The creators are highly acclaimed practitioners and their expertise is everywhere evident. ... Aaron Crouch was eminently convincing as the contentious teenaged son, his youthful slouching frame housing a weighty tenor that is quite baritonal at the bottom, but brightens up as it ascends." -- James Sohre, Opera Today

 'More urgent:' "In light of recurring incidents of police brutality and the fact that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, the work seems even more urgent than when it was created." -- Vivien Schweitzer, Classical Voice North America

'Stay alive:' "The libretto is urgent and immediate. Thompson, who is African American, writes with authentic detail and genuine voice. He offers many startling and succinct lines, ... [such as:] 'Stay alive. That's what you’re supposed to do.'" -- Joseph Dalton, Albany (N.Y.) Times Union

Scene from Act I of "Blue."

♦ 'Particularly urgent:' "A searing examination of race, identity and the fraught relationship between communities of color and law enforcement. ... To sit in an auditorium ... confront a work that mirrors the world shown on the news every night feels particularly urgent." -- Cameron Kelsall, Parterre

Detroit stagings:

  • When: 7 p.m. Sept. 11 and 12

  • Where: Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre, Atwater Street at RiverWalk

  • Tickets: Michigan Opera Theatre, $59 - $139 Saturday, $29 - $139 Sunday 

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