Opera Profile: A Look at Wayne Shorter’s First Opera ‘Iphigenia’

By John Vandevert

Jazz opera is not a new phenomenon when it comes to American opera and the “American” opera tradition. Rather, jazz has thoroughly permeated the fabric of opera since the tradition’s very beginning. By all accounts, George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” an opera rife with controversy and iconic music, is the most famous. Yet, others like Scott Joplin’s well-received opera “Treemonisha,” and most recently Terence Blanchard’s internationally acclaimed “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” all synthesize African-American culture with the exciting, demanding, and dramatic art of operatic theater. But, another modern opera has also contributed to this tradition of cultural merger.

I’m talking about Wayne Shorter’s first opera “Iphigenia,” a collaborative work between Shorter and jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding. Shorter and Spalding’s achievements in the genre of jazz, the former a colleague with greats such as Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Freddie Hubbard, the latter whose career spans over two decades, are strengths which helped them create a thoroughly contemporary piece of operatic art. Reviews deemed the opera a huge success for its riveting score and critical take of the mythological “Iphigenia.” Composed only last year, the opera could see the light of day again if enough interest is there.

With so many operas being performed, it’s only a matter of time.

The Story/ies of ‘Iphigenia’

Euripides, a famed 5th century Greek playwright, wrote many plays and epics on Greek mythology. Written at the end of his life, “Iphigenia in Aulis” tells the story of the fighting between King Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra about his decision to sacrifice their daughter, in order to appease Artemis and to win the Trojan War. In this story, Iphigenia is both a victim and a martyr as she makes the difficult choice to willfully sacrifice herself instead of being dragged to her death. The themes that are present within Euripides play center around fate, free will, virtue, and self-respect, with Iphigenia choosing to boldly give her life up even though her death is being chosen for her against her will. Acknowledging her own powerlessness, she gives up her life in order to protect Greece from the tragedy that would ensue later on. As the plays of other Greek playwrights like Aeschylus (in his trilogy work, Oresteia) already had shown to audiences, however, that Agememnon was going to be murdered by his wife upon his return to Greece. Again, the inability to escape the hand of fate, karmic debt, and the ideas of morals, ethics, and virtue all find residence in many of the Greek stories and mythological events. But, one of the most important elements is the enigmatic ending that Euripides’ story has. Although, in the normal ending, Iphigenia is killed, a non-extant fragment shows that Iphigenia actually survived and was not killed.

But, in Spalding’s telling, Iphigenia doesn’t acquiesce to her sacrifice. Rather, her future is rendered ambiguous and is taken into her own hands. Speaking about her decision, Spalding had said, “Our …(Iphigenia) has at its core a sense of autonomy – in this adventure of life, you have freedom of choice.” No longer satisfied with the prioritization of her subservience to the male-dominated themes within the Greek play, Spalding chose to give Iphigenia autonomy over the future she chooses. Spalding noted that the theme of her plot is, “humanistic love, of wanting to re-awaken the dreams of youth, free of the pressures of adulthood.” In Act three of the opera, Iphigenia’s future is split into five different versions, each proposing a different life direction for the girl forced to make a life-or-death decision. The opera takes a more meta turn, however, as each of the six Iphigenias are sacrificed and yet come back to life in order to question their killing and challenge the narrative set for them. In order to mimic the chaotic uncertainty that Spalding’s story argues, the final sacrifice is halted by the women and instead an open tense ending is used. In effect, this was an orchestral soundtrack to the women improvising motion on stage which was supposed to mimic the unknown future of Iphigenia. Three of the more famous settings of the opera by Gluck, Piccini, and Campra, also play around with the tragic ending, choosing to keep Iphigenia alive and end with a more celebratory and happy ending rather than a somber alternative. 

Shorter’s Musical Score

The opera’s orchestration is written for a 28 instrument ensemble, far smaller than the traditional 50 to 120, when dealing with larger operas like Wagner and Strauss. In terms of Shorter’s use of jazz, the opera featured a jazz trio in the second act and, in the words of Los Angeles Times Mark Swed, “is not a jazz opera but a confident, commanding, full-blown American opera with jazz elements.” Having begun the opera when he was 19, but only began serious work in 2019 during COVID, the opera is a highly refined work which takes jazz and treats it to a more classical finish. But, one of the trademarks of the opera is the importance placed on the orchestral score, with the vocal lines coming second. Apparently, this was the order of how the work was created and a purposefully designed element to ensure a full cohesion of the voices and instruments.

But as some reviewers had noted, the jazz element seemed to have only gotten its full bloom in Act three during the trio section, towards the end of the opera. The hallmark of the opera, notwithstanding the synthesis of modernism and romanticism, was the symphonic improvisation alongside the jazz trio, previously called an “open tense” ending. Shorter’s novel usage of improvisation, in order to capitalize on the anomie caused by Iphigenia’s fractured future, is personified in this technique. Speaking about the music with NPR, Shorter noted that when it comes to opera, “Everything is kind of breaking down.” However, you need to understand the genre and its tradition, something he shared as well. Spalding noted that the music echoed the way she felt reading Euripides’ story for the first time:

“[…] the music has this virility and relentlessness that feels closer to how I perceived these myths when I was first reading them.”



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