Shorter and Spalding’s jazz opera ‘… (Iphigenia)’ is ‘a big, wonderful puzzle’: Video, Photos

Shorter and Spalding’s jazz opera ‘… (Iphigenia)’ is ‘a big, wonderful puzzle’: Video, Photos

Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding are two of the most creative people in the music world, but their new project is remarkable even for the two jazz icons.

The collaboration “…(Iphigenia)” is a classic tale from Greek mythology, updated and re-interpreted as a jazz opera.

The project has been eight years in the making, and is in rehearsals at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams with a cast and orchestra of 40 performers preparing for its debut in Boston this weekend.

“…(Iphigenia)” will be performed three times at Boston’s Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater from Nov. 12-13, in association with the New England Conservatory of Music and presented by ArtsEmerson.

Iphigenia was the daughter of King Agamemnon and when he embarked upon the Trojan War and sailed for the city of Troy, he inadvertently killed one of the sacred stags of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. In response, Artemis halted the winds, leaving Agamemnon and his fleet of warriors stuck at sea. The only way the goddess would allow Agamemnon to proceed was if he killed his daughter as a sacrifice to her.

The story of Iphigenia came down through the ages largely due to the work of the classic Greek playwright Euripides, but even he was subject to audience reviews. Some versions of the story have Iphigenia killed by her father, but in others she is saved and goes on to further actions, such as meeting her brother Orestes, or eventually marrying Achilles. One version has Artemis rescuing her and leaving a goat in her place (Pan), which then transforms into the goddess Hecate.

In turning the classic myth into a modern opera, Shorter, 88, has been composing the score for years and he enlisted Spalding, 37, the Boston-educated bassist and vocalist, to write the libretto, or dramatic storyline.

The duo has brought the tale into contemporary terms and used it as a way to challenge the classic role of women in opera. As in many classic dramas, women were often depicted as relatively helpless and usually victims, often reduced to mere dramatic devices to move the stories – almost always centered on men – forward.

What the Shorter and Spalding production does is use the Iphigenia role to upend that depiction of women. The role of Iphigenia is multiplied, so that a chorus of women depicts and examines women’s place in opera, in this play, and the world in general.

Esperanza Spalding wrote the libretto for "...(Iphigenia").

Shorter has crafted a score for a whole orchestra, but also left room for what they are calling “symphonic improvisation,” in other words letting the musicians interpret and enhance the score, and perhaps “jam out” a bit, in keeping with jazz tradition. The music score is being performed by about 25 members of the Albany Symphony and Spalding leads a cast of nearly 20 singer-performers.

Lileana Blain-Cruz directs

We caught up with director Lileana Blain-Cruz last week as she worked to complete rehearsals before the Boston run, which is to be followed by a national tour. Blain-Cruz has won an Obie Award for her previous work, but even she is awestruck by the way this project expands one’s imagination.

“It’s been a really great experience and the spark of Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding is in everything as we work towards this opening,” said Blain-Cruz. “They’ve created a whole new thing here. The fun is in putting it all together and watching the multiple layers come together and then finally having the big orchestra performing it. Esperanza and I went to Los Angeles and met Wayne in person and also did a lot of Zoom meetings to discuss how we’d do this. And both of them have a certain playfulness of spirit that is evident throughout this work.”

“You can come in to this production knowing absolutely nothing about Greek mythology, and be surprised and swept up in a massive journey,” said Blain-Cruz. “Fans could also see this work multiple times and find something new every time, whatever brings them joy.”

Blain-Cruz admitted she didn’t know a lot about the basic story when she started working on this project, but the ways it resonates in this treatment quickly had an impact.

“It is a classic story, but one of the exciting things is that we’re working specifically on the myth,” Blain-Cruz explained. “It’s a haunting kind of tale, which, when you look it up, the main point is the girl being sacrificed. This opera examines that whole concept, that pretense of a woman being sacrificed for a war, all to appease a goddess. And it’s about all the ways we think we have to behave, these ways we take for granted. But it is a playful look in Wayne Shorter’s music, different from the way Euripides wrote it.”

Iphigenia ‘pops open’

“In the original versions, everyone talks around Iphigenia – she doesn’t even get to speak until the end of the story,” Blain-Cruz said. “Esperanza has done it so that we have multiple voices of Iphigenia, each of them strongly speaking for their point of view. She’s saying, ‘Look at all the various iterations of my story, all the ways it could be told.’ That kind of inside-out perspective of many viewpoints is at the heart of this opera.”

A dramatic re-interpretation of a classic tale, told with a musical score performed by a symphony orchestra, makes it all sound like a massive project to coordinate. But director Blain-Cruz sounds like the Energizer Bunny over the phone, upbeat and enthusiastic.

“It’s a lot; a big, wonderful puzzle,” she said. “And with this particular opera company, it is a real physical journey too. We have the soldiers’ story, Agamemnon’s story and Iphigenia’s story. We have worked really hard to parse out the many different narratives. Our wonderful designers (including scenic designer Frank Gehry, the award-winning architect) have also used different colors, like bright, pungent colors for the women and drab uniforms for the soldiers, as well as moody lighting to enhance it all.”

“There are a couple of moments, I must say, where this opera just pops open,” Blain-Cruz said. “The music is so remarkable. It is kind of like a roller-coaster ride, the way it opens up into something entirely new, this journey it mentally takes us on. When I heard about Wayne’s idea of ‘symphonic improvisation,’ I felt that was super-thrilling. That’s another aspect that is entirely new to opera and to hear it on a grand scale like this is incredible.”

‘This is going to be exciting’

The basis of jazz is hearing something new every time, but how does that compute for an opera?

“That’s the directors’ challenge; in this canon, there are 15 to 20 different versions of Strauss, or ‘Carmen’ for instance, and how do you set yours apart?” said Blain-Cruz. “Over the last few days, hearing the orchestra with all of us meeting in the same space, I’ve been going ‘Whoa, there it is!’ I think, since due to the pandemic we’ve all been isolated so long, to actually have us all in the same space again, with music and voices coming together, this is an especially exhilarating experience. I think this work is going to be exciting for people to feel on a very basic level.”

This new version of Iphigenia’s story can also inform much of today’s outlook, according to the director.

“We can all get caught up in structures, but the activation of multiple Iphigenias here shows us other ways of being, some we didn’t even realize we had,” Blain-Cruz pointed out. “I think one underlying theme of this work is that we should all be gentle and listen to each other. Listening to each other can be heart-opening.

“In the process of improvisation, there is a necessary reciprocity – a connectedness to each other. What is remarkable about this form, being done to this scale, is that so many people are involved. But I run around the rehearsal hall dancing and yelling every day because it is fun. It feels good to have a party like this, and we can’t wait for people to share it with us.”

Jay N. Miller For The Patriot Ledger

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