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Wayne Shorter and esperanza spalding crack open the old world in new opera

Iphigenia, played by esperanza spalding, prepares for her sacrifice. From Wayne Shorter and spalding's opera, <em>...(Iphigenia)</em>.
Iphigenia, played by esperanza spalding, prepares for her sacrifice. From Wayne Shorter and spalding's opera, ...(Iphigenia).

There's a key metaphor nestled near the midpoint of ...(Iphigenia), the audacious, iconoclastic new opera by Wayne Shorter and esperanza spalding. A revisionary take on a canonical tale — mainly Euripides' Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis, a storm of bloodlust, retribution and obligation — the opera seeks to imbue its namesake character, a young woman sentenced to ritual sacrifice, with some semblance of a soul. As for the metaphor, it arrives when someone exhorts Iphigenia to "open the cemented way by your dandelion sprout." The chorus instantly seizes on that image:

seeded in you

in you seed the cracking of cemented myth

illumine our clay

A seedling, sprouting through a crack in the firmament: it's a useful way to envision what ...(Iphigenia) is trying to accomplish, with respect to its source material. At the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston last month, during the opera's first fully staged presentation, this hopeful struggle played out both in the music and its metatext. And as Shorter and spalding both freely admit, speaking separately by phone this week, the buried tensions in the production are far from resolved. On the cusp of two sold-out performances at the Kennedy Center this weekend, and before ...(Iphigenia) moves on to a pair of bookings in California (Cal Performances at UC Berkeley and the Broad Stage in Los Angeles), the opera's co-creators describe a work very much in progress — if not, as spalding might be the first to acknowledge, a piece at war with itself.

For Shorter, a saxophonist who at 88 belongs to the first rank of living jazz legends, ...(Iphigenia) represents a continuation, rather than a culmination, of his lifetime inquiry. Earlier this fall, he spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about the circuitous life of this production, which fulfills an operatic ambition he first harbored in the 1950s, as a music education major at NYU. His career path led him instead through some of the most acclaimed small groups of the era, his deep instinct for enigmatic logic making him one of the most influential jazz composers of the last 60 years.

"I kind of knew that these bits and pieces of music were like a trail, a stairway, leading to other kinds of things," he says, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. "All this music, they're all like cells that belong to what I'm doing now." Then again, it's not as if an operatic expression is some sort of prize at the end of the pathway, Shorter hastens to add. "I come to this opera with the idea that nothing is thrown away," he says. "Nothing is destroyed. All the stuff — one little song that I wrote, to me, is equal to a symphony. Has equal value. Equal importance."

Wayne Shorter, left, goes through materials with esperanza spalding during a rehearsal of <em>...(Iphigenia)</em>.
/ Courtesy of Real Magic
Wayne Shorter, left, goes through materials with esperanza spalding during a rehearsal of ...(Iphigenia).

Shorter has faced serious health issues in recent years, a circumstance that could have consigned ...(Iphigenia) to the realm of What Might Have Been. Instead, taking up guest residence at a Santa Monica bungalow owned by architect Frank Gehry, he and spalding immersed themselves in the project. Writing the score in his own hand, Shorter brought intense exactitude to his orchestration — a quality that rings clearly from the first few measures of the piece, which can only be characterized (to those who know his work) as "unmistakably Wayne."

Though he was unable to travel to Boston, Shorter will be in Washington, D.C. for the Kennedy Center run. ("I'm bringing a dialysis technician with me," he says, "so I can receive treatments in the hotel room.") He says that Gehry, who did the monumental yet strikingly fluid set design for ...(Iphigenia), will also be in attendance. So too, of course, will spalding — who not only wrote the opera's libretto and helped found its independent production company (Real Magic, named after a casual remark by Shorter), but also occupies a central role in the opera, as one of six Iphigenias. (The credits identify her role as "Iphigenia of the Open Tense.")

Among the stated intentions that spalding brought to the project was an exploration of consent, something that has rarely if ever factored into Iphigenia's story. In Euripides' drama and in depictions throughout art history — a few of which are pointedly reenacted in the opera's opening scenes — Iphigenia has no agency, or much of an autonomous voice. "What if she contests her fate?" prods the program notes for ...(Iphigenia). "What if she says no?" Throughout spalding's libretto, which borrows language from Joy Harjo, Safiya Sinclair and Ganavya Doraiswamy, there runs a stream of poetical archetype and sly provocation. Still, the central act of violence in the story is undeniable, a harsh centripetal force.

Reflecting on last month's premiere, presented by ArtsEmerson, spalding keeps returning to a sensation of stubborn rigidity — partly due to the restrictions of budget and time, but also of the myth itself, and of even the most permissive operatic conventions. "I felt it kind of flailing at, and pushing against, the shape that we tried to fit it into in Boston," spalding says, speaking with an uncharacteristic deliberation, as if feeling her way to judgment.

The chest-thumping machismo of the Grecian soldiers in ...(Iphigenia), while overplayed for satirical effect, was also something that took spalding aback. "I didn't realize that men took up so much space in this opera," she says. "And that's so crazy; I wrote it like that! But I didn't know this until I was sitting in the audience watching the parts of the show that I'm not in. And I was like, 'Oh my god. What is this?' " She laughs. "But actually, the music has this virility and relentlessness that feels closer to how I perceived these myths when I was first reading them."

Soldiers in the fray during <em>...(Iphigenia)</em>.
Jon Fine / Courtesy of the artist
Soldiers in the fray during ...(Iphigenia).

There's no shortage of self-awareness on this front in spalding's libretto — at one point, a narrator, referring to "the great old men" behind the myth itself, Freudian-slips "phallic" for "prolific" — but there's something deep-seated in the power of embodiment onstage. "Eros and fear and power and lust and rage and all of these energies — it's one thing to think about these energies in the abstract, and what it means for them to be manifest and portrayed," spalding says, back in her usual conversational flow now. "But I think what was shocking was noticing how intense and brutal and grotesque these dynamics really are. And most of the times when I'm encountering these myths, they're really hidden behind the classiness of the storytelling and the staging and the portrayal. When I strip away the façade of the classiness of performance, that's what I feel is churning underearth this myth."

Shorter brought some of that knowing ambivalence to his own engagement with the story. ("What was Euripides really saying?" he muses. "He didn't want to go to jail like Socrates.") But he was also more focused on how his musical language could flourish in a new setting and presentation — a challenge he embraced with characteristic, horizon-scanning optimism. "The first people were not limited," Shorter says, referring to the originators of opera as an art form. "Some of the guys — as I say, Monteverdi and the cats — they were doing things indoors, in the principalities, with all that money and everything. And then somebody said, 'Let's go outside and play.' And someone else said, 'I have a story. Can I get it in here somehow?' And then somebody said, 'I'll dance to that.' That's how opera grew. It came out of the desire to play together."

By what may have been a cosmic accident, ...(Iphigenia) is the second major opera by a jazz eminence to reach audiences in the second half of this year. The first was Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which had a triumphant run at The Metropolitan Opera in the fall. The spectacular success of Fire just led The Met to announce that it will also stage Champion, Blanchard's first operatic effort, in the spring of 2023. What's worth acknowledging is that the approach taken by Blanchard ­— a leading jazz trumpeter who dedicated his most recent album, Absence, to Shorter — was to win over operatic institutions from within. The approach taken by the ...(Iphigenia) team, including producer Jeff Tang and director Lileana Blain-Cruz, has been to proceed as if operatic institutions are beside the point. Musically, this conviction comes across most vividly in the presence of Shorter's longtime rhythm section, pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade (whose effective substitute in Boston was Jeff "Tain" Watts, fresh off a similar assignment in the pit of Fire). There's a powerfully expressive moment near the conclusion of ...(Iphigenia), when the orchestra falls away and the trio simply rages — a spike of catharsis, as the ancient Greeks would say.

"Everything is kind of breaking down," attests Shorter, speaking to long-held prejudices around the genre. "Doors are opening. The path less trodden? That path is open now. Anyone who has the guts and the fearlessness and the inquiry to jump in there." He quickly clarifies that you should also understand the tradition you're inhabiting (or evading). "There's a phrase I don't like, when an artist tries something, to 'see if it works,' " he adds. "That sounds like a robot to me. I like: 'See what happens.' "

As it rumbles toward the next phase in its evolution, ...(Iphigenia) still occupies a "see what happens" space. The discomfort of that position, for the company and even for the audience, is central to the process. "Wayne always says that you can't get mad at those forces of resistance that surround the creative art, because that resistance is exactly what we need to fly," spalding says. "And he always uses this metaphor of a plane needing drag as much as it needs lift. So actually, I guess if there were no restrictions or forces of rigidity working on the process of this, it wouldn't truly be in spirit with Wayne's philosophy. Because he does believe that the way we respond to those resistances is the work. It is about how you create value and bring forth the enlightened function out of whatever resistance you're encountering. In that way, even with its quote-unquote imperfections, it's quite a Wayne piece."

...(Iphigenia) will be presented at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 10 and 11; at Cal Performances at UC Berkeley on Feb. 12, 2022; and at The Broad Stage in Los Angeles on Feb. 17-19, 2022.

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Nate Chinen
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