Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding and Frank Gehry modernize the Greek myth

“Nothing is what I’m trying to keep and move forward. Nothing. Thank you.”

Those were Wayne Shorter’s parting words to the audience at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Friday night after the Southern California premiere of his opera, “…(Iphigenia).”

This nothing is not nothing. It’s nothing made of something. It may be the imagination at play, beyond explanation, Shorter explained.

“…(Iphigénie)” contains 100 minutes of captivating music for orchestra, jazz trio and a good cast of singers. Opera is the magnificent cornerstone of one of the greatest jazz careers of all time. Writing an opera, said the 88-year-old saxophonist and composer, has been his ambition for decades.

To make it finally happen, he collaborated with bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who wrote the libretto, stars in the production, and was the indispensable driving force behind the opera. Architect Frank Gehry, who designed the set, was the third partner. After many workshops, the premiere took place in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Along with multiple co-curators, “…(Iphigenia)” has since traveled, with Santa Monica being one of its final stops on Friday and Saturday. But, like Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” it happens to find company in a handful of major LA operas. Shorter wrote the score at his office in Hollywood, in what has been described as beautiful graphic writing. Much of the opera was staged and rehearsed at Gehry’s original home in Santa Monica, a short walk from the Broad.

Many more were eventually implicated. Conductor Clark Rundell is credited with additional orchestrations for the 28-piece pit chamber set. Composer Caroline Shaw is among those who contributed the luxurious vocal arrangements. American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo is among those who contributed additional text.

In the end, it is easier to say what this interrogative and seemingly contradictory opera is not than what it is. This is not a jazz opera but a self-assured, authoritative and complete American opera with jazz elements. For Spalding, opera is not so much a modernization of an enduring myth as a disruption of the power of myth, an emboldened empowerment of the mythological Iphigenia.

Early on, an usher (Brenda Pressley in the speaking role) who walks through the theater before the opera begins tells us that Iphigenia’s is a terrible story that we should reject. On his way to fight the Trojan War, King Agamemnon accidentally kills a favorite deer of Artemis, the goddess of wild animals and chastity. She demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia or there will be no wind for the sails of warriors.

In the ancient plays of Euripides, in the stories of Ovid, Racine and Goethe, in the operas of Gluck, in the contemporary novels of Barry Unsworth, Ismail Kadare and Colm Tóibín, in a film by Michael Cacoyannis and in several plays, the story of and fascination with Iphigenia took several turns. She is sacrificed or not to Aulis. She finds her way to Tauris and becomes a chaste priestess for Artemis, or she marries, or she is actually the goddess.

Agamemnon is horrified and either thwarts Artemis, or doesn’t. This is consistent: war is war; the wind is the wind; gods are gods. And the blanks are consumable.

Except they’re not, as Spalding summons Iphigenia Unbound, Iphigenia of the Sea, Iphigenia the Elder, Iphigenia the Younger, and Iphigenia of the Light in his fight against victimhood. Iphigenia of the Open Tense – a dazzling, if puzzled, modern woman in a silver jumpsuit, portrayed by Spalding – takes matters into her own hands.

The opera, which is in three acts and performed without interruption, opens with a sacrificial slaughter of an Iphigenia. Usher, now on stage, attempts to stop him but is cut off. Other slain Iphigenia will soon litter the scene. After each dies, the surtitles announce that the wind is blowing.

In Lileana Blain-Cruz’s unsightly staging, the Greek soldiers, in hokey costumes suitable for a school play, are bloodthirsty. They party like frat boys and march to war like supercharged athletes about to take to the field for football practice, singing their rah-rah refrains. The bailiff calls them wind merchants.

The Iphigénies are entitled to much more beautiful individual wardrobes but are not necessarily identified. They sing ethereal lines to radiant music. A painted backdrop of a wintry forest takes on different meanings in different lights and dimensions as it flutters in the wind.

Through it all, the orchestra, powerfully conducted by Rundell, is the dominant force. Shorter’s melodic patterns convey grandeur, his harmonic language enriches all his keys. Where the Music Goes defies simple logic. Like a force of nature, it does not tell us how to think or feel or what is going on. It is the nothing from which something or other can arise. When the vocal lines are mirrored by the instruments, the effect is not to emphasize the music, but to give voice to a spirit.

For the second act, the curtain falls on a jazz trio – Danilo Pérez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums) – members of Shorter’s longtime quartet. Their role is improvised. The nude scene is reserved for the Iphigenia and their stories. Each has its own distinctive vocal style, be it vocals, scat or something more traditionally lyrical. Each, in its own way and with its own story, seeks to detach itself from the myth, and they form a choir. The Iphigenia of Open Time awakens.

Act 3 begins with a spectacular effect. With blazing brass, the orchestra and the trio sound a bright new dawn. Gehry’s wondrous, diaphanous, cloud-like moving sculptures appear. They catch the light with even more effect than the backdrop of the forest. It is the opening of space, time and sound for Iphigenia of the Open Tense.

There’s a bit of craziness with a TV host and a cameraman, like it’s a Met show. But Greek soldiers become more thoughtful as women begin to take over. Iphigenia thinks more deeply about the sacrifice. War is man’s folly, but sacrifice has meaning. She accepts that there can be empowerment in dying to save the Greeks, even if she is restrained from having to fall victim to a myth.

As she emerges from the myth and leads the other five Iphigenia to a new land, the opera cannot escape the myth, despite Spalding’s best efforts. We are now fighting for small sacrifices, like wearing a mask to save lives. Taurus, to which Iphigenia is headed in the myth, is found in what is now called the Crimea, a still mythical place of struggle.

“…(Iphigenia)” asks questions he can’t answer, but that only proves him right for future productions which, unlike this one, leave room for investigation. But keep the sets by all means. Keep the cast exciting. Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, Sharmay Musacchio, Nivi Ravi and Alexandra Smither are the Iphigénie. The Greeks are led by Samuel White (Agamemnon), Brad Walker (Menelaos) and Tyler Bouque (the priest Kalchas) who all do what they’re told on stage but still sing convincingly. And, by all means, make a recording. The score is a lyrical landmark, and the performance reflects that.

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