MCANA Picks Tesori and Thompson’s ‘Blue’ as Winner of Best New Opera Award

By Chris Ruel

On June 17th, the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) announced “Blue” as the winner of its Fourth Annual Award for Best New Opera. “Blue,” composed by Jeanine Tesori with libretto by Tazewell Thompson, premiered at the Glimmerglass Festival in July 2019 and tells the story of an African American couple residing in Harlem, New York City. The couple’s activist son both inspires and scares them—his mother struggles with fears about his future, and his father, a “Black man in blue,” grapples with his own identity as a police officer as he prepares his son for the realities of 21st-century America. Tragedy strikes and the couple must lean on their community and church to pull them through.

The deciding MCANA Awards Committee was comprised of co-chair opera critic Heidi Waleson of the Wall Street Journal; co-chair George Loomis, contributor to the Financial Times and Musical America; Arthur Kaptainis of the Montreal Gazette and La Scena Musicale; John Rockwell, former critic and arts editor of the New York Times and co-New York correspondent of Opera (UK); and Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker. The voting occurred on March 12th, prior to the killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officers. The runners-up to “Blue” are Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmon’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis); and “prisoner of the state” by David Lang (NY Philharmonic). The award ceremony was held virtually after MCANA’s Annual Meeting—scheduled for June 19-21—in San Francisco was canceled due to the ongoing pandemic. An in-person presentation of the plaques is postponed until a later date when conditions are judged safe.

In the press release announcing the winner, the MCANA committee stated, “Blue, an all-too-timely story of one family’s devastating loss—the teenage son of a black police officer is killed by a white police officer—is given universal resonance by Jeanine Tesori’s gripping, accessible music and Tazewell Thompson’s poignant, unflinching libretto. Blue was selected as the recipient of this year’s award in mid-March, and we at MCANA are proud to be announcing the award now, in this difficult time, when many of its planned productions around the country had to be canceled, and because incidents like the one at the center of the opera continue to occur. We hope that this important work will see many more performances in the future.”

Composer Jeanine Tesori has written a wide range of music for Broadway, opera, and film. Along with Missy Mazzoli, Tesori is one of the first female composers commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. She received a Tony Award for her musical “Fun Home,” and an Olivier Award for “Caroline, or Change.” In addition to thanking the committee for the honor, Tesori stated in the press release, “While it is my hope that this work is presented world-wide, I also pray for the day that it does not seem, as it does now, ripped from the news of our daily lives.”

Librettist Tazewell Thompson is an internationally acclaimed theater and opera director and award-winning playwright with 150 directing credits. His production of “Porgy and Bess,” broadcast Live from Lincoln Center, garnered Emmy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Production in the Outstanding Classical Music category. In the official press release, Thompson shared, “I wrote ‘Blue’ from a passionate need and responsibility to tell the personal family story behind the numbing numbers of unarmed African Americans killed by white police officers.”

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and the shutdown of opera houses around the globe, “Blue” was scheduled for performances this spring and summer at the Washington National Opera in March, Lyric Opera of Chicago in June, and Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in July, all of which were canceled or postponed. Lyric Opera of Chicago has rescheduled its run to January 15-23, 2021, and Minnesota Opera will present the opera February 13-21, 2021.

MCANA’s Best New Opera Award was created in 2016 to honor musical and theatrical excellence in a fully-staged opera that received its world premiere in North America during the preceding calendar year. The three previous winners are composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek’s “Breaking the Waves” (2017); composer-librettist David Hertzberg for “The Wake World” (2018); and composer Ellen Reid and librettist Roxy Perkins’ “p r i s i m” (2019).