Opera ‘…(Iphigenia)’ at the Kennedy Center pushes musical boundaries

Opera in the 21st century has been radicalized and reinvented by new artists and musical languages, but nothing quite prepared me for the fever dream of…(Iphigenia), a new work based on Euripides’ tale of probable infanticide. Composer-musicians Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding have teamed up to dig up the bones of myth and examine the motivations of not just father King Agamemnon, but also daughter Iphigenia and women throughout history who this team believes creative, must share some guilt in accepting such as self-sacrifice.

There is more than 50 years of age difference between Wayne Shorter (88), considered the greatest living jazz composer, and Esperanza Spalding, winner of the Grammy Award, and they were working on opposite coasts for this collaboration. Nevertheless, they spawned a creation that has already entered into legend. It premiered last month in Boston and played this weekend at a packed Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

Scene from ‘…(Iphigenia).’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

The opera began as an odd pastiche, even a parody: Full Metal Jacket meets Monty Python. The guys are geared up for war in a barren landscape, the only stage element being a large stone altar against a scrim with a red sky projection. The men are restless, angry and stuck in this windless landscape, unable to embark on their war against the Trojans. Two brothers – leaders Agamemnon and Menelaos with their long “rock star” hair – are the only ones whose faces we see clearly. Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Agamemnon and baritone Brad Walker as Menelaos have powerful vocal chops, as does tenor Samuel White as the oracle/seer Kalchas. Kalchas roughly resolves the dilemma of the Greeks caused by Agamemnon engendering the wrath of a goddess, by suggesting that the maiden be sacrificed to Artemis.

Between Iphigénie, soprano Nivi Ravi, dressed as a spring green flower child. She is hoisted onto the altar, and in delicate slow motion, dad slits his daughter’s throat. The men applaud, each raises an arm fist in the air, then in single file they run-walk in a two-stroke jody. These soldier buddies rehearse the scene again. Enter another Iphigenia. etc It’s absurd, even pushing the bloated conventions of opera with elephants, and the toxic masculinity is no doubt intentionally banal.

At some point, the men get drunk. The soldiers become fraternity boys, as they stumble and throw giant red plastic cups, littering the stage. One of the soldiers crosses the stage from left to right carrying a flesh-colored plastic inflatable doll. The soldiers circle around grumbling in a line of crocodiles and exit again.

Esperanza Spalding and cast of ‘…(Iphigenia).’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

The second part shifts to focus on several Iphigeneias. Each is color coded and each has its own sonic pitch. Sopranos Alexandra Smither in Iphigenia of the Light and Joanna Lynn-Jacobs in Iphigenia of the Sea are followed by mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra in Iphigenia Unbound. (Later, the same singer plays Opera Broadcast Host, trying too hard at this point in the opera to make the work relevant.) Most distinct is the saffron-clad Iphigenia the Elder. Sharmay Musacchio is an extraordinary contralto that pulls out all the stops in terms of range and color.

The stage space has opened up. Inflated Baroque-style design elements by famed architect-designer Frank Gehry are flown in. Clouds? They look delicate in their light-catching translucency but dangerous in their needle-like tips.

We suddenly realize that the creators have laid down the rules of the game musically. It’s not exactly jazz and certainly not what we heard as a contemporary classic. It pushed the boundaries between the members of the creative team. (Caroline Shaw is given composition credit for the female vocals in the choir forming group chords, switching to unison, then playing with wide-rippled vibrato so that the whole effect is of destabilized vocals, each Iphigenia threatening to take over from another Whether it’s a score or an improvisation, it sounds like opera as an incantation.

Meanwhile, members of the Kennedy Center Orchestra in the pit led by conductor Clark Rundell, in charge of complementary orchestrations and musical dramaturgy, mushroom in polyrhythms and density.

Shorter delivered his most seething and slippery scores. It takes you by surprise, and I sometimes found myself lost in a musical maze.

Esperanza Spalding in ‘…(Iphigenia).’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

With something this ambitious, there are bound to be gaffes. The character Usher, played by Brenda Pressley, wanders the proceedings. Elegantly dressed, she does nothing but talk, a sort of guide-interpreter, and periodically urges one of the six Iphigenia to break the spell and get out of this mess. But as it drowns in the sound balance (voluntary?), I never understood its function.

There is no doubt that spalding is fearless. I was stunned to realize she was there in the mix of Iphigenia. She stood out not only because she was dressed in a 21st century silver astronaut suit, but when she got into her own solo work, she went to stylistic places, maybe- even being spiritual, that no one on the whole had ventured. By humming, by plunging into resonant spaces of head and body, this artist, like Shorter, broke all the rules. She didn’t hesitate to lower the sound and explore deep space.

In the third part, the stage is stripped down even further to reveal the back walls, and there, to the right, a jazz trio has become the center of attention. Audiences reveled in drinking three incredible jazz musicians – bassist John Patitucci, pianist Danilo Perez and drummer Brian Blade, whom Shorter brought together in 2000 for his quartet. For jazz lovers, these guys are kings. And what was suitable for the story of opera?

So is Shorter still crazy after all these years? WTF. You bet.

Duration: approximately 1h45 without intermission.

…(Iphigenia) performed December 10 and 11, 2021 at the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC.

The digital program can be viewed here.

For a complete list of events for the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary season, click here.

To learn more about the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary, click here.

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