Wayne Shorter’s opera dream comes true, made true with Esperanza Spalding

On a recent November morning, after months, if not years, of working separately, a chamber ensemble, a jazz trio and more than a dozen opera singers finally have the opportunity to rehearse together, in person, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz picks up a microphone and greets the Los Angeles-based jazz elder who couldn’t make the trip east.

“I just wanted to take a moment to record the importance of this, that we’re all here together just to call Wayne Shorter’s name in this space,” said Blain-Cruz. “Let’s give it up for Wayne Shorter!”

The room bursts into hoots and applause.

Shorter’s first opera, … (Iphigenia), is scheduled to premiere in Boston this week. The work then travels to three other cities: Washington, DC, and Berkeley and Santa Monica, California.

It took literally decades to get to this point. Shorter began to think of long-running dramatic work when he was a 19-year-old music student at New York University.

“This opera was going to be based on biker gangs,” he said via Zoom from LA, “like the movie The wild which Brando was in. Then Shorter heard that Leonard Bernstein was working on a musical about gangs called West Side Story, so he put his idea aside.

After graduating in 1956, then two years in the military, Shorter made the transformation of American music with other jazz pioneers, including Art Blakey and Miles Davis, and in the fusion group Weather Report. His Grammy-winning acoustic quartet, formed in 2000, spanned two decades.

But for all these years, opera stuck in the composer’s imagination – until he met composer, singer and bass prodigy Esperanza Spalding.

“I noticed she was attacking things that no one else would,” Shorter recalls of Spalding’s peculiar way of playing.

The two jazz revolutionaries, who appeared in completely different eras, bonded deeply and Shorter finally told Spalding about his long-held opera fantasy. He thought it might involve taking a 400-year-old play by Greek writer Euripides and turning it into something new and unbridled.

“When I first looked at a good opera book, the first thing I saw was a line that said, ‘In opera, anything goes,’ Shorter recalls. ‘Me and Esperanza , we started talking and talking – and then she said, “Let’s do it. Come on.”

“Damn, I’m sure Wayne told these other people – that he wants to do an opera,” Spalding remembers thinking at the time. “So the fact that momentum was not generated to do so is problematic.”

Then in 2018, Shorter was hospitalized. Spalding was afraid to push, but said directing his opera was more urgent than ever. She confronted her friend and mentor with a question which she said was influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s book Psychomagic, that explores the power of lucid dreaming: “OK, Wayne, like in the dream of your life, if anything could happen, what do you want?” What do you want ? We want to facilitate this with you. “

Response from Shorter: “I want to do real magic. No tricks.”

Without going too far in his Buddhist practice, Shorter offers one of the reasons he has agreed to move forward. “There’s one thing they say: when you leave here you shouldn’t have any regrets,” he says. “And you have to finish everything you promised to finish.”

So he and Spalding plunged headlong into completing what they had started – he composed, she crafted a libretto – for a stimulating opera, inspired by the work of Euripides, that would embody the collaborative spirit. and spontaneous jazz.

“It’s not that it’s going to be jazzy,” Shorter says, “and put a syringe and inject jazz into the world of opera.” Instead, he says, it channels a “simultaneity.”

Shorter’s notes always came first, explains Spalding, reversing the standard of opera. “While Wayne was writing, I also encountered fragments of the music and felt equally intimidated and terrified, invigorated and inspired,” says Spalding. “It has possessed me in a way, and I don’t think I have ever been possessed by anything else.”

The process took her into a burrow of research into Euripede and the historical context of her play, as well as scholarly work examining the possible meanings of Iphigenia. As she wrote, overwrite and rewrite multiple versions, she says, month by month, person by person, the right collective of creatives joined us in helping her.

Spalding contacted writers of different genres for advice. “Even Peter Sellars at one point,” she says of the famous theater director. “I was just like, ‘Please help me!’ And they did. ” Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw eventually arranged a cappella parts for the singers, and the lyrics of three poets – Safiya Sinclair, Ganavya Doraiswamy and American poet-laureate Joy Harjo – join those of Spalding in parts of the text. .

The produced Shorter and Spalding play disrupts the ancient Greek game of Euripedes, about King Agamemnon’s plan to appease a goddess by killing his daughter. In the opera’s first act, six Iphigenias relive their own murders, one after another, before the narrative confronts the cycle of violence audiences have seen on stage over the centuries.

“I hope there are countless Iphigenias,” says Spalding.

At the start of opera development, singers were asked to improvise, which creative executive producer Jeff Tang says never happens in opera. He and Spalding formed an independent production company, Real Magic, to foster and even protect radical experimentation in opera.

“Perfection is something that is demanded of opera singers,” Tang says. “That concept doesn’t exist in this project. I think Wayne sounds like it doesn’t exist in jazz. So for us the process is our product. That, in and of itself, is radically different from how the Most operas exist in the world, and how it is supposed to be received in the world. “

Tang and Spalding have also raised their own funds for the opera, in part with the aim of ensuring that affordable tickets are available for people who don’t normally feel welcome at an opera.

Architect Frank Gehry embraced the early evolution of … (Iphigenia) when he signed on to design the sets for the opera. He even invited members of the team to move into his LA home during the process.

“I didn’t fully understand what they were doing,” Gehry recalls, “but when I heard it, I cried.”

Gehry had admired Shorter’s music and loose approach since their first meeting with composer and jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. A special moment remains etched in the architect’s mind: Behind the scenes at a philharmonic event in Los Angeles, a musician asked Shorter what they would rehearse.

“‘Hey, man, you can’t repeat what you haven’t made up yet.'” Gehry recalled in response to Shorter. “I just thought, oh my god, of course that’s what all of us creatives are trying to explore right now. You can’t tell someone what it’s gonna be up front. . “

Members of Shorter’s longtime quartet also perform in the opera, including bassist John Patitucci. “You can hear Wayne’s soul song in all of this,” he says. “He’s been through a lot health wise, but he managed to finish it which is a huge gift for all of us.”

Patitucci says that the music of … (Iphigenia) the music represents a continuation of Shorter’s expansive compositional language, which Spalding says has been neglected outside of the jazz world – with “the who of him, the essence of him,” she adds. At Shorter’s request, she lends her singular voice to the mix as one of the six Iphigénies of the opera.

When asked what she would like people to take away from work, she pauses to think. “It might just be a convoluted delivery system for Wayne’s music – and there’s a message in the music,” she says. “And I really want the public to receive it.”

As for Shorter, he says you won’t find any “shoulda, coulda, woulda” in his opera debut. “Life itself is the greatest opera,” he adds, “and to find out where you’re going in all of this, you have the right to make that discovery.”

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