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Wayne Shorter's operatic dream comes true, brought to life with Esperanza Spalding

Composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter with a page from his <em>...(Iphigenia)</em> score.
Composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter with a page from his <em>...(Iphigenia)</em> score.

One recent November morning, after months, even years, working apart, a chamber ensemble, jazz trio and more than a dozen opera singers finally have an opportunity to rehearse together, in person, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz picks up a microphone and acknowledges the Los Angeles-based jazz elder who couldn't make the trip east.

"I just wanted to just take a moment to register the momentousness of this, that we are all here together just to call up the name of Wayne Shorter in this space," Blain-Cruz says. "Let's give it up for Wayne Shorter!"

The room erupts in hoots and applause.

Shorter's first opera, ... (Iphigenia), is set to premiere in Boston this week. The work then travels to three further cities: Washington, D.C., and Berkeley and Santa Monica, Calif.

It's taken literally decades to get to this moment. Shorter started thinking about a long-form, dramatic work when he was a 19-year-old music student at New York University.

"This opera was going to be based on motorcycle gangs," he said via Zoom from L.A., "like the movie The Wild One that Brando was in." Then Shorter heard Leonard Bernstein was working on a musical about gangs, called West Side Story, so he put his idea aside.

After graduating in 1956, and then two years in the army, Shorter proceeded to transform American music with other jazz pioneers, including Art Blakey and Miles Davis, and in the fusion group Weather Report. His Grammy-winning acoustic quartet, formed in 2000, endured for two decades.

But through all those years, opera still lingered in the composer's imagination – until he met composer, singer and bass prodigy Esperanza Spalding.

Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding in rehearsal for <em>...(Iphigenia).</em>
/ Courtesy of Real Magic
Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding in rehearsal for <em>...(Iphigenia).</em>

"I noticed that she would attack things that no one else would," Shorter recalls of Spalding's singular way of playing.

The two jazz revolutionaries, who came up in completely different eras, connected deeply, and Shorter eventually told Spalding about his long-held operatic fantasy. He thought it might involve taking a 2,400-year-old play by the Greek writer Euripides and turning it into something new and unbridled.

"When I first looked at a good opera book, the first thing I saw was a sentence that said, 'In opera, anything goes," Shorter recalls. "Me and Esperanza, we started talking and talking – and then she said, 'Let's do it. Come on."

"Damn, I'm sure Wayne has said this other people – that he wants to make an opera," Spalding recalls thinking at the time. "So the fact that momentum hasn't been generated to do that is problematic."

Then in 2018, Shorter was hospitalized. Spalding was afraid to push, but says that realizing his opera felt more urgent than ever. She confronted her friend and mentor with a question she says was influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky's book Psychomagic, which explores the power of lucid dreaming: "OK, Wayne, like in the dream of your life, if anything could happen, what do you want? What do you want? We want to facilitate that with you."

Shorter's reply: "I want to make real magic. No tricks."

Without going too deep into his Buddhist practice, Shorter offers one reason for why he agreed to move forward. "There's one thing they say: when you leave here, you should have no regrets," he says. "And you have to finish everything you promised to finish."

So he and Spalding dove headlong into finishing what they started – he composing, she crafting a libretto – for an empowering opera, inspired by the Euripides work, that would embody the collaborative, spontaneous spirit of jazz.

"It's not that it's going to be jazzy," Shorter clarifies, "and put a syringe and inject some jazz into the operatic world." Instead, he says, it channels a "simultaneity."

Esperanza Spalding (left) rehearsing with musicians in a Washington, D.C. workshop.
Jeff Tang / Courtesy of Real Magic
Esperanza Spalding (left) rehearsing with musicians in a Washington, D.C. workshop.

Shorter's notes always came first, Spalding explains, reversing the operatic norm. "All the while Wayne was writing, I was also encountering fragments of the music, and feeling equally intimidated and terrified and invigorated and inspired," Spalding says. "It possessed me in a certain way, and I don't think I've ever been possessed by anything else."

The process led her down a rabbit hole of research on Euripides and his play's historical context, along with scholarly works examining Iphigenia's possible meanings. As she wrote, trashed, and rewrote multiple versions, she says, month by month, person by person, the right collective of creatives came onboard to help.

Spalding reached out to writers from different genres for guidance. "Even Peter Sellars at one point," she says of the famed theater director. "I was just like, 'Please, help me!' And they did." Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw ultimately arranged a cappella parts for the vocalists, and words from three poets – Safiya Sinclair, Ganavya Doraiswamy and U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo – join Spalding's in parts of the text.

The piece Shorter and Spalding produced disrupts Euripides' ancient Greek play, about King Agamemnon's plan to appease a goddess by killing his daughter. In the opera's first act, six Iphigenias relive their own murders, one after the other, before the storytelling confronts the cycle of violence audiences have seen onstage over centuries.

"My hope is it feels like there are countless Iphigenias," Spalding says.

Early in the opera's development, the singers were asked to improvise, which executive creative producer Jeff Tang says never happens in opera. He and Spalding formed an independent production company, Real Magic, to foster and even protect the opera's radical experimentation.

"Perfection is something that is demanded of opera singers," Tang says. "That concept does not exist in this project. I think Wayne would say it doesn't exist in jazz. So for us, process is our product. That, in and of itself, is radically different from how most opera exists in the world, and how it's meant to be received in the world."

Tang and Spalding also raised their own funds for the opera, partly in an effort to ensure affordable tickets are available for people who normally don't feel welcome in an opera house.

Frank Gehry (left) and Wayne Shorter in conversation, in Los Angeles.
Mika Shino / Courtesy of Real Magic
Frank Gehry (left) and Wayne Shorter in conversation, in Los Angeles.

Architect Frank Gehry embraced the early evolution of ... (Iphigenia) when he signed on to design the opera's sets. He even invited members of the team to move into his L.A. home during the process.

"I didn't completely understand what they were doing," Gehry recalls, "but when I heard it, I cried."

Gehry had admired Shorter's music and freewheeling approach since they first met through jazz composer and pianist Herbie Hancock. One particular moment sticks in the architect's mind: backstage at an Los Angeles Philharmonic event, a musician asked Shorter what they'd be rehearsing.

"'Hey, man, you can't rehearse what you ain't invented yet.,'" Gehry recalls Shorter replying. "I just thought, oh my god, that's of course what all of us creative people are trying to explore at the moment. You can't tell somebody what it's going to be in advance."

Members of Shorter's long-running quartet are also playing in the opera, including bassist John Patitucci. "You can hear the song of Wayne's soul in all of this," he says. "He went through a lot of stuff health wise, but he managed to finish this, which is a huge gift to all of us."

Patitucci says the music of ... (Iphigenia) music represents a continuance of Shorter's expansive compositional language, which Spalding believes has been overlooked outside of the jazz world – along with "the who of him, the essence of him," she adds. At Shorter's urging, she lends her singular voice to the mix as one of the opera's six Iphigenias.

Asked what she'd like people to take away from the work, she pauses to reflect. "It might just be a convoluted delivery system for Wayne's music – and there's a message in the music," she says. "And I really just want audiences to receive that."

As for Shorter, he says you won't find any "shoulda, coulda, woulda" in his operatic debut. "Life itself is the greatest opera," he adds," and to discover where you're going in all that, you have the right to do this discovering."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 17, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Euripides' "Iphigenia" as a 400-year-old play. In fact, the play Iphigenia in Aulis was first staged in 405 B.C., making it over 2,400 years old.
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