‘Iphigénie’ at MASS MoCA – The Williams Record


About 15 minutes after the start of Friday’s performance Iphigenia – a new opera with music by Wayne Shorter and lyrics by Esperanza Spalding which premiered at MASS MoCA this weekend – it started to flow from the fact that I was, in fact, at an opera, and that would be for the next 105 minutes. Why, then, was I shocked to find myself listening to beefy tenors bellowing an indecipherable libretto, even though Iphigenia was explicitly designed and advertised as an opera?

A paragraph in my defense, your honor. I had plenty of reasons to presume Spalding and Shorter’s opera might not be, well, opera. Shorter and Spalding are both known for their contributions to jazz music rather than classical composition. Shorter, a saxophonist who has performed in the Miles Davis Quintet, has been called a “contender for the best living improviser” in the New York Times; Spalding is a prodigy bassist and jazz singer who became one of the youngest professors in the history of Berklee College of Music when she joined the faculty at the age of 20.

Iphigenia is a multigenerational collaboration between Shorter, 88, whose lifelong dream of composing an opera has been threatened by his declining health, and Spalding, 37, who took a year off from his current teaching job at Harvard to help to make Shorter’s dream come true. Iphigenia introduces improvisational jazz to the classical opera form, promising “intervention in the creation of myths, music and opera as we know them”, according to an advertisement. It certainly intervened, but under much more traditional conditions than one might have hoped from these visionaries.

Iphigenia takes the Greek myth of Iphigenia to Aulis, canonized by the classical tragedian Euripede in a play of the same name, as a starting point. During the preparations for the Trojan War, King Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, accidentally kills a sacred deer of the goddess Artemis. In retaliation, Artemis holds back the winds that Agamemnon and his troops need to set sail for Troy unless Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods.

In their imaginations of the myth of Iphigenia, Shorter and Spalding sought to overturn lyrical and mythological tropes that repeatedly condemn women to tragic fates. “No more tragic women singing by suicide and going mad in a perfect tone,” the project’s press release reads. “No more shows of dead and dying women. However, act one of Iphigenia portrays just that. For what appears to be an unusually long time, men wearing Greek helmets scream and scream, slit women’s throats, stomp knuckles, and wield red solo cups. Presumably, forcing the audience to endure such a repetitive and traumatic exposure raises the stakes of the pivot that occurs in the second act. However, it seemed unnecessary to spend so much precious time preparing a calculation that the audience already knew was coming – the show begins with an usher assuring us that “this myth will have a different ending”. In act two, five alternate versions of Iphigenia who were brutally killed in act one – Iphigenia Unbound (Kelly Guerra), Iphigenia of the Sea (Joanna Lynn-Jacobs), Iphigenia the Elder (Sharmay Musacchio), Iphigenia the Younger (Nivi Ravi) and Iphigenia of the Light ( Alexandra Smither) – take the empty stage to tell their stories, heal together and advise the soon-to-be-sacrificed Iphigeneia of open time (se spalding) to compose a new destiny.

In act three, this agency takes the form of a musical concept called by spalding “open time”. The music usually involves the reiteration or rewriting of pre-existing historical forms, but the ‘open-time’ music – in Iphigénie, the call-and-response improvisations of the singers and the orchestra – is grounded in the present by engaging ” the art of listening and responding deeply and at the same time. “ The account of act three resumes with the imminent sacrifice of Iphigenia, but that of Spalding Iphigenia was strengthened by her exit from opera acting and is now poised to change her fate. Iphigenia does not end with the singular tragedy of Spalding’s onstage sacrifice, nor with a decisive and explicit rejection by Spalding, but with Spalding leading a community mourning ritual for the five Iphigenias in “open time”.

A work in progress is a clumsy thing for an opera. The fully edited operas are based on lavish sets, costumes and staging to match the intensity of the vocal performances and orchestral arrangements; opera readings abandon these staging to put the human voice in the foreground. Iphigenia the quality of the production fell somewhere in the middle confused, confusing the mission of the opera. East Iphigenia, with its elaborate sets and full symphony orchestra, supposed to be a full-fledged production? Where are the classic theatrical elements of Iphigenia Present mainly to deconstruct and criticize, held as a counterpoint to Spalding’s inventive, but underused voice? Even if Iphigenia was a brave attempt to straddle the line between traditionally overstimulating classical opera and radically intimate improvised jazz, the performance ultimately skimped on the latter despite intending to center these new possibilities for form.

It should be noted that the word “opera” comes from the Italian word for “work” and one should not forget that the composition of Iphigenia by Shorter was a monumental labor of love. Nearly 90 years old, Shorter composed the music for Iphigenia entirely by hand, having recovered from a metabolic tremor that made it difficult to play his beloved saxophone and write the music. But at the end of Iphigenia, Shorter’s meticulous composition again dissolves into improvisation. The conductor’s hands are silent; he stands in awe. Shorter’s farewell gift may not be the music of Iphigenia, but rather a desire to open this score to radical improvisation, to pass the baton to Spalding and the cast of women who represent the avant-garde of jazz. The great thing about a work in progress, Iphigenia suggests is that the most interesting work has only just begun. represent the avant-garde of jazz. The great thing about a work in progress, Iphigenia suggests is that the most interesting work has only just begun.


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