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Why the Kennedy Center Is Developing an Opera About Police Brutality

"The work of theater is to make us confront the unthinkable."
Blue librettist Tazewell Thompson and composer Jeanine Tesori. Photograph courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

An unarmed African-American teenager is shot and killed by a white police officer at a protest. It’s a story that would sound sadly familiar on the evening news. It’s probably not one you’d expect to hear from the Washington National Opera.

Blue—a new work commissioned by WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello (as a coproduction with the Glimmerglass Festival, which she also runs) and set to be staged at the Kennedy Center in March 2020—tackles this unusually thorny subject matter at a tense time in which it would be safer to stick to Mozart and Verdi. “Opera has a long history of changing hearts and minds about meaningful issues,” says WNO general director Timothy O’Leary, “but that isn’t the stereotype about opera.” For Zambello, it was a way to address her concerns “about race relations in America and police violence, about family, about young black men.”

With a libretto by Tazewell Thompson and music by Jeanine TesoriBlue complicates the narrative by making the teen’s father—played by local bass Kenneth Kellogg—a police officer himself. “Police are placed in incredibly difficult situations,” says Zambello, “and we try to present both sides of the story rather than just saying, ‘Okay, police violence is bad.’ ”

Still, the opera is likely to stir up strong emotions. (Just look at what happened when NFL players protested police killings of black men.) The Kennedy Center is starting to plan a series of outreach events “that will build dialogue in the community prior to the opening of the work,” as O’Leary puts it. The goal is to present Blue in a thoughtful way with input from both the African-American and police communities.

What will audiences think? That depends on how successfully the creative team fuses its artistic and political missions. But tackling difficult issues is likely worth the risk, whatever the reaction. “I think the work of theater is to make us confront the unthinkable,” says Sybil Roberts Williams, an American University professor who focuses on African-American studies and the performing arts. “If presenting this kind of violence in an opera form does that, then it’s doing its job.”

This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

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Rosa joined Washingtonian as an editorial fellow in fall 2016. She likes to write about race, culture, music, and politics. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in International Relations and French with a minor in Journalism. When she can, she performs with her family’s Puerto Rican folkloric music ensemble based in Jersey City. She lives in Adams Morgan.