How Jazz Titans Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding Reinvented a Greek Tragedy

Eight years ago, during a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert, Esperanza Spalding sang original lyrics to “Gaia,” composed by Wayne Shorter. Backstage, after the performance, Shorter—widely considered jazz’s greatest living composer and among its defining saxophonists and bandleaders—confessed to Spalding that he had yet to achieve an ambition he’d held since his days as a teenage music student: to compose an opera.

“Then why the hell aren’t you writing one?” Spalding, a bassist and singer-songwriter who, in 2011, became the first jazz musician to win a Best New Artist Grammy award, shot back. So, Shorter began composing one. Not long after, he enlisted Spalding to write the libretto and sing the lead. Shorter’s Iphigenia is based on Iphigenia at Aulis, by the Greek dramatist Euripides, which revolves around the fate of the mythical princess Iphigenia, who is to be sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, in order to appease the goddess Artemis and enable war on Troy.

At the opera’s opening on Nov. 12 and 13 at Boston’s ArtsEmerson, Shorter, now 88 and battling serious health issues, will realize his long-held dream by way of the last thing Euripides wrote before his death. Shorter’s opera combines the members of his long-standing jazz quartet with a 28-piece orchestra. Onstage at one point will be a half-dozen Iphigenias analyzing their own tale, including the one played by Spalding, the 37-year-old still-rising star. The existential questions about fate, choice, agency, and cycles of violence raised by this 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy will be considered by Shorter, Spalding, and a creative team that includes architect Frank Gehry as set designer, recast for an extended present-day moment of calamity and unrest.

“We’ve been told we’re not making an opera in the normal way,” Shorter told me in late 2019. For one thing, he composed music to which Spalding wrote a libretto. (As musicologist Carolyn Abbate told Spalding early on, “Lady, usually it’s the other way around,” the libretto preceding the score.) Perhaps that’s the least of it. The entire project embodies an aesthetic Shorter has advanced for more than a half-century, beginning with his work in trumpeter Miles Davis’ second great quintet, in the 1960s, including the music he made in the ’70s and ’80s, incorporating rock and world-music influences with the group Weather Report, and extending through his late-career quartet.

Shorter stopped performing in 2019 owing to his ailments. For the previous 20 years with his quartet, his classic compositions served as mere springboards toward collective improvisation, and to foster what he calls “self-actualized communal leadership,” in which “people ignite each other without anyone dominating.” A familiar melody would pop up, and then was just as soon gone. He rarely played a conventional solo. The music focused on motion, dynamics and mood, without concern for style or credo, conveying above all else a strong narrative flow.

The group’s drummer, Brian Blade, told me more than a decade ago, “At first, we thought Wayne was going to come in with the scrolls and we were going to play what it is, but he had already moved on from all that.” That quartet music—really, everything Shorter has ever composed and played—is animated by the three words Shorter uses to define jazz itself: “I dare you.” (It’s worth noting that he began declaring that credo in the face of a rising tide of neo-conservatism among jazz’s ranks, which looked to his earliest music for its musical manifesto.)

In February 2019, Shorter accepted the most recent of his 12 Grammy awards for “Emanon,” a three-disc set pairing his quartet with a chamber orchestra that came with a graphic novel about a reluctant hero engaged in righteous battle. His first words from the stage were, “Thank you for taking the plunge with all of us into the unknown.” His opera has taken shape within an environment of radical experimentation and non-hierarchical collaboration—rather abnormal in the field of opera production—that he has developed with Spalding and Gehry, as well as with director Lileana Blain-Cruz, executive creative producer Jeff Tang, conductor Clark Rundell and the musicians, and which owes also to the circumstances surrounding their collective work.

The opera is supported in part by commissioning arts organizations—after Boston, it moves to the Kennedy Center Dec. 10 and 11 and, in February, to Berkeley’s Cal Performances and Santa Monica’s Broad Stage; open rehearsals were held at MASS MoCA last week—but it has been developed independently, by Real Magic, a company created by Spalding and Tang (and named for Shorter’s comment that his remaining days would be devoted to “making real magic—no tricks, no gimmicks”).

Major opera companies “were so caught up in their racist ideas about who an opera composer is and what he should look like, that they couldn’t see Wayne’s vision, or they didn’t care to.”

Esperanze Spalding

“Esperanza and I talked about this venture as if we were heading out into the ocean on a raft,” said Tang. “We agreed that at some point we wouldn’t be able to see where we started or where we were headed. And that’s all we really knew.” During the past two years, owing to Shorter’s health challenges and, later, to the pandemic, Shorter, Spalding, and others have rehearsed in university classrooms, hotel rooms, black box theaters, even Gehry’s kitchen.

Shorter took up this project with the same enthusiasm he had at 19, when he began composing “The Singing Lesson,” an opera about a Greenwich Village girl whose brother is in a motorcycle gang (he abandoned the idea when Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” came out). Back then, he was fascinated by opera-history books, “which all told me that, in opera, anything goes,” he said. That was the spirit he wanted for his opera. Yet “Iphigenia” nearly shut down before he really got going. Shorter was led out in a wheelchair to accept that 2019 Grammy. Soon after, he was hospitalized for what he described as “a near-death experience.” Spalding and the members of the quartet had been gathering in Shorter’s Los Angeles home, helping the opera take shape. Suddenly, they feared for both the project and their beloved mentor. “My only agenda at that time,” Spalding told me, “was to get this man his opera so he could enjoy it while he has eyes and ears in the physical sense in this plane.” She took a year off from Harvard University, where she serves as Professor of the Practice of Music, and from touring, to dedicate herself to Shorter’s project.

As soon as Shorter left the hospital, “I just picked up where I left off,” he said. “The only thing that experience did was get me marching forward.” At first, unable to write music by hand, Shorter would sing the parts at rehearsals. Later that year, when toxic mold was found throughout Shorter’s house, complicating his health problems, he and his wife, Carolina, moved out. At one juncture, a small chamber ensemble and singers packed into his hotel room for a rehearsal. Eventually, they took up temporary residence in Gehry’s empty home in Santa Monica. Spalding joined them. Shorter gained strength. He began rising at 3 a.m. to write out his score by hand. “That score was a thing to behold,” said Phillip Golub, the opera’s “musical dramaturg” (a title that is likely unprecedented). “It was extraordinary labor of precision, willpower and creative energy, down to the last 32nd note. Just this gorgeous handwriting, lots of Wite-Out and gluing of new pieces over old ones, so it appeared almost like a Rauschenberg painting.”

At a Kennedy Center opera workshop in September 2019, half the studio floor was covered with pages from that score, cut up and re-organized, at Shorter’s urging. Spalding had abandoned her first stab at the libretto. It didn’t fit the music. Now she was letting deep listening to Shorter’s score guide the tale. A phrase reverberated in her mind after waking one morning—maybe Shorter said it, maybe not: “Sound is mass, and it grows things.” At the Kennedy Center, she huddled with a small circle of singers and musicians. The place looked a bit like a grade-school classroom. On one table were small clay sculptures the cast had made during breaks. The walls were dotted with yellow Post-It notes, on which had been scrawled koan-like utterances received from Shorter—on one, “there is no how it’s done until it’s done.”

Back then, Shorter and Spalding couldn’t have known that their creative world would get locked down by a pandemic, their premiere delayed more than a year. As they dug into their collaboration, they also couldn’t have predicted that inequities based on race and gender would boil over into historic protests in streets as well as radical restructuring at most arts organizations. In 2018, just as Shorter received a Kennedy Center Honor, Spalding’s approaches to major opera companies and funding organizations had been politely rebuffed. “They were so caught up in their racist ideas about who an opera composer is and what he should look like,” Spalding told me, “that they couldn’t see Wayne’s vision, or they didn’t care to.”

That particular context has changed, and quickly. “The Central Park Five,” composed by Anthony Davis, was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music. “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” composed by Terence Blanchard, who achieved fame as a jazz trumpeter, opened the Metropolitan Opera’s new season in September. Such developments amount to what composer, musician, and Columbia University professor George E. Lewis argued for in a New York Times Opinion essay with the headline, “Lifting the Cone of Silence from Black Composers.” Yet these other works tell stories drawn from Black lives. Iphigenia upends one of Western Civilization’s classics.

Euripedes’ Iphigenia in Aulis has inspired many works, from Iphigénie, a five-act tragedy in Alexandrine verse by the French playwright Jean Racine first performed in 1674, to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, set in contemporary Cincinnati, Ohio. Dutch playwright Samuel Coster’s 17th-century production of his original play Iphigenia so incensed Calvinist clergy that it was banned. Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Iphigénie en Aulide, which had its premiere in Paris in 1774, was, in musical terms, a statement against the “opera seria” of the day, which showcased vocal virtuosity and strict form over drama and innovation. (A German-language version of that work by Richard Wagner in the mid-1800s offered an alternate ending.) Shorter found himself fascinated by an 18th-century translation of Iphigenia in Tauris—in which Euripedes considered Iphigenia’s life after her escape from sacrifice—that was translated by the German poet Goethe. “I think Euripedes and Goethe were being slippery with us,” Shorter said, “about whether a Greek tragedy has to be tragic, about whether or not all this war is really glorious. And, remember, the values and morals here are carried by a young woman.”

Spalding calls this new version of Iphigenia “a subversive interrogation of this tragedy that leads us to understand how stories have been traditionally told, and how we must disrupt existing systems and create our own alternative stories.” Chiefly, she means how 400 years of opera share a common thread: Women suffer, often at the hands of men who seek to control them. The descriptive copy on the website of ArtsEmerson calls the work “an intervention to opera as we know it” and asks, “what if she contests her fate?”

“What if women commanded the narrative?” Spalding asked me in 2020 after Harvard University, where she serves as Professor of the Practice of Music, shut down its campus owing to the pandemic. Before the lockdown, with Shorter’s blessing, Spalding and Abbate, also a Harvard professor, had created an undergraduate class that served as a workshop for the development of the opera involving a small contingent of singers and students. “By then, I had pretty much thrown away my libretto,” Spalding said. “I was writing furiously week to week, bringing in whatever I had.” As Abbate recalled, “Esperanza’s model of this class was like a true laboratory, where things get mixed together in beakers and you see what happens.” Shorter would occasionally beam in via Zoom. Abbate had suggested that Spalding read a 1979 book, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, by the French philosopher Catherine Clément; in it, the author refers to opera as “an art form that demands the submission or death of the female character for the sake of narrative closure.”

The open-endedness of those workshops, which continued via Zoom once the campus shut down, led Spalding to a series of revelations. The first was, as Abbate described, “this very strongly felt conviction on Esperanza’s part that Iphigenia herself take the pen out of someone else’s hand and do the job through an almost automatic writing process: ‘Now, I am writing what and who I am. You are no longer writing it for me.’” Spalding found herself needing to empower not just the mythical princess but also herself. “The same dynamic we were trying to break open in the story, I had to break open in my life,” she said. “I had gone through that process of deferring to authority and to knowing men who seemed more well-versed in the environment I’d stepped into, but I had to remind myself: Wayne asked me to write something. How will I tell this story?” All of which befits Shorter’s process. “Wayne is always trying to deflect responsibility,” Golub told me. “Whenever you ask him a direct question, he’ll never give you the answer. And that’s very intentional. It’s not that Wayne doesn’t have the answer. It’s not Wayne being coy or silly. It’s a strongly held belief, a philosophical commitment. If we say, ‘Master, tell us what to do,’ that equals failure.”

Through all of this—all of it—Wayne is unfazed. And that reminded me: Our art form is about responding to the unexpected.

Esperanze Spalding

In Harvard workshops, Spalding had various female singers perform the part of Iphigenia, each with their own vocal timbre, range, and approach. (Spalding’s own voice has an impressive range. It is powerful, lovely, and deeply expressive. It is also not, technically, operatic.) “The singers need to sing however they sing,” Spalding said, “and we need to surrender the idea that this must have the shape and sound of previous operas.” She decided that, after the relentless calls to war of the opening act, the second act would focus on the testimonies of five Iphigenias, each with a distinct story and vocal technique. “I wanted to reflect the reality that each woman has her own tale to tell, and that such stories are many.” These passages in the libretto were contributed by other writers, whose perspectives Spalding sought: the musician and scholar Ganavya, and the poets Joy Harjo and Safiya Sinclair.

Early last month, a flyer taped to the wall of an elevator in Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory displayed a QR code, asking musicians and singers to share their daily COVID test results. Up in a fifth-floor studio, Spalding and five other singers sat in a semi-circle at a workshop, awaiting musical cues from a rehearsal pianist, under the watchful eyes of Blain-Cruz, the director and Rundell, the conductor. With the opera’s premiere a month away, the mood in the room was benevolently inquisitive, like a lively graduate-school literary seminar, with Blain-Cruz as professor. I flashed on something Pérez, the pianist in Shorter’s quartet for 20 years (who will perform with the opera’s orchestra), once told me: “When Wayne gives us music, the point is that you have to be responsible on your own to understand the material, and to form your own opinions and feelings about it. It’s almost like a book group. We read about a topic, and then we’ll be discussing it when we get onstage.” The music during that workshop, a piano reduction of the score, bore Shorter’s musical signature, especially through its majestic leaps of intervals and shifts of harmony that arrived like unexpected vistas along a curved mountain road.

While Spalding sang wordless melodic lines, Brenda Pressley, in the role of Usher—a character Spalding described as “that elder woman who sits in corner at the barbeque and she sees everything”spoke lyrics with rhythmic intensity: “Mighty disorientin’/ waking up in your own myth / before and after you die / finding out you don’t exist.” The company was working on that Second Act, set in a liminal space, in which multiple Iphigenias share feelings and consider their fates. At one point, after describing how the men have “extracted and bottled” woman’s essence, Nivi Ravi, as Iphigenia the Younger, sang, “In pursuit of the unholy permanence / The Mask of Noble Cause did this man wear / self-assured for so long / it became his skin.” Later, Sharmay Musacchio, as Iphigenia the Elder, sang,“You are all what the myth can’t bear / you are an open tense.” After a lunchbreak, Blain-Cruz pulled a stuffed deer, the same one that would be used onstage, out of a cardboard box. She gently stroked it. She motioned for the singers to draw close. “It’s important to honor the histories of unfortunate deaths,” she said.

Any trained musician looking at Shorter’s score would sense its mixture of harmonic richness and rigor, its rhythmic variety and a playfulness that often characterizes his work. Rundell, who first worked with Shorter 13 years ago on “Gaia,” noted points where he recognized a familiar “Wayne-ness” to the score. “And yet I find myself struck anew,” he said, “by the combination here of granite-like strength in this work and subversive qualities. It comes from a subtlety of meter, a complexity of syncopation and the most unexpected flickers of harmonic beauty. The music is dramatic, in an actual sense: Just when you think you’re in a dark place, here comes the light and just when you think all is clear, here comes trouble. And it’s so luxurious, you feel it on your skin.”

One key element of the opera is the integration of Shorter’s quartet members with the orchestra, and how they interact with the singers. “Wayne works with musicians in a way that invites—it demands—taking chances,” said John Patitucci, who first worked with Shorter in 1986 and has been a member of his quartet from its start. “He likes chaos, but it’s a carefully cultivated form of chaos that only he creates.” Shorter didn’t score parts for his quartet mates. “They’re going to know this music,” Shorter said, “and then they’re going to do the kind of investigation we have done for 20 years.” That relies on, as Pérez put it, “a musical language we have developed with Wayne to tell his stories, which is very specific but also open-ended.” Shorter embedded his score with “windows” through which the quartet members may enter and depart, Pérez said. “People will likely say that this score sounds like jazz,” Golub told me. “But if it does, that’s because modern jazz sounds like Wayne.”

Music helps us grasp timeless themes. It leads us to understand timely and troubling truths. Black American music has always done both things at once—in the process, questioning and even defeating structural inequities and confining ideas while confounding categories, including, for example, those that separate composition from improvisation. Just now, the themes and approach of Shorter’s opera resonate in strikingly necessary ways. How does art speak to our most fragile moments? How can it embolden us to improvise in our lives from a place of strength and wisdom? What do choice and sacrifice mean now, within the seemingly endless tunnel of pandemic life, as uncertainty hovers above our decisions? Who makes those decisions?

“This work is almost a perfect allegory for what we’ve all been asked to do,” Abbate told me last year, “and that allegorical force struck most of the people involved in our opera lab, especially once the campus shut down. We had no idea how making music, or pretty much anything else, would continue.” In between rehearsals, Blain-Cruz told me, “I don’t know about you, but I was terrified this past year. To experience the two of them, Wayne and Esperanza, be so fearlessly optimistic in the face of that, to maintain so much hope and love, it’s freeing as an artist and just as a person.”

When I spoke with Spalding after her Harvard campus shut down and the killing of George Floyd had set off protests, with the opera’s schedule then uncertain, she told me, “Through all of this—all of it—Wayne is unfazed. And that reminded me: Our art form is about responding to the unexpected. To be equipped to create meaning and harmony out of anything, and to be willing to ask tough questions. We often express it through melody and chords but it’s a practice. It’s how we live.”

On the phone from his home in Los Angeles in early November, Shorter considered all that had happened to him and to all of us since he began work on this opera. “It’s all a cauldron for a simultaneous awakening, an unfolding,” he said. Just days before his opera’s first public-facing performance, he had sent along 21 pages of new music—“something I wrote to help give the instrumentalists more choice,” he said, “and to help the vocalists break out and create good trouble.”

What does Shorter want people to gain from his opera? “I want you to remember when you were a kid and you played outside with a bunch of friends,” he said. “Your parents are gone at work. It’s summertime, and you’ve played outside all day. And when your parents return, they ask you, ‘What have you been doing?’ And you say, ‘Nothing.’ I want people to recall that nothing. Because if you can, then we can begin striking little matches of enlightenment to lead the way.”

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