The Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) is pleased to announce that its 2020 Award for Best New Opera has been given to composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson for BLUE.
This marks MCANA’s 4th Annual Award for Best New Opera, a major recognition given annually by an Awards Committee of distinguished music critics. Honoring an opera premiered in either the United States or Canada, it is the only such award in the U.S., and one of the few in the world that simultaneously recognizes both composer and librettist. The MCANA committee completed its deliberations and made the selection ofBlue as the winner on March 12—long before the current turmoil stemming from the police killing of George Floyd.
Blue was commissioned and given its world premiere by The Glimmerglass Festival in July 2019. It was scheduled for performances this spring and summer at such prestigious institutions as the Kennedy Center (Washington National Opera) in March, Lyric Opera of Chicago in June, and Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in July—but all of these have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Blue has been rescheduled for performances at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (January 15-23, 2021), and Minnesota Opera will present it February 13-21, 2021.
The opera focuses on an African-American couple living in Harlem, filled with hope and fear for their activist teenage son. The mother worries for his future; the father, while preparing his son for the realities of 21st century America, wrestles with his own identity as a police officer, a “Black man in blue.” When tragedy strikes, the grief-stricken parents seek answers and support from their church and community. Urgent and heartbreaking, Blue examines the joys and fears of an African-American couple trying to raise and protect their son in a dangerously polarized world. In its exploration of race, violence, and forgiveness, Blue places timely issues at the forefront of modern opera and invites audiences to the emotional epicenter of their impact.
After its Glimmerglass premiere, The New York Times described Blue as “powerful — as well as sadly timely…Ms. Tesori has written a strong, yet subtle score that avoids the obvious and exudes a personal voice. Mr. Thompson has written one of the most elegant librettos I’ve heard in a long time.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that “Ms. Tesori’s deeply affecting and disturbing music has just the right weight and gravity for the story. Mr. Thompson’s unflinching libretto avoids political posturing yet clearly exposes the opera’s underlying predicament.”
In response to winning the award, Jeanine Tesori said:
“I am thrilled to receive the Best New Opera award from the MCANA. Blue celebrates the African-American family, and the consequences of possibility denied. While it is my hope that this work is presented world-wide, I also pray for the day that it does not seem, as it does now, ripped from the news of our daily lives. I thank the MCANA for this honor.”
Tazewell Thompson said:
“I am honored to be the recipient of the MCANA Award. I wrote Blue from a passionate need and responsibility to tell the personal family story behind the numbing numbers of unarmed African Americans killed by white police officers. To garner the prize from such a highly accomplished and prestigious jury of judges is overwhelming. To share this distinction with my brilliant collaborator, Jeanine Tesori, makes it especially sweet.”
After soliciting nominations from MCANA members, the finalists were chosen by an Awards Committee co-chaired by Heidi Waleson, opera critic of The Wall Street Journal, and George Loomis, longtime contributor to the Financial Times and Musical America—alongside committee members Arthur Kaptainis, who writes for the Montreal Gazette and La Scena Musicale; John Rockwell, former critic and arts editor of The New York Times and co-New York correspondent of Opera (UK); and Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker.
Runners-up to Blue are Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis); and prisoner of the state by David Lang (NY Philharmonic).
The Best New Opera Award presentation was originally planned to take place during the MCANA Annual Meeting June 19-21 in San Francisco, which was canceled and is now being held virtually. The Award plaques will be given in person to Tesori and Thompson at a later occasion, when the pandemic conditions have improved.
At four years old, MCANA’s Best New Opera Award has an illustrious track record. The inaugural Award went to Missy Mazzoli (composer) and Royce Vavrek (librettist) for Breaking the Waves in 2017; the 2nd Award went to composer-librettist David Hertzberg for The Wake World in 2018; and the 3rd annual award went to Ellen Reid (composer) and Roxy Perkins (libretto) for p r i s m in 2019.
The award was created in 2016 to honor musical and theatrical excellence in a fully-staged opera that received its world premiere in North America during the preceding calendar year. It reflects the overarching mission of MCANA to foster distinction and, through its web publication Classical Voice North America, to communicate the richness of musical life in the U.S. and Canada at a time when classical music coverage in traditional print media is shrinking.
Jeanine Tesori has written a diverse catalog for Broadway, opera and film. Along with Missy Mazzoli, Ms. Tesori is one of the first female composers commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. Her musicals include: Fun Home (Tony Award, Pulitzer finalist); Soft Power (Pulitzer finalist); Caroline, or Change (Olivier Award); Violet; Shrek; Thoroughly Modern Millie; Twelfth Night; A Free Man of Color; and Mother Courage. Her operas include: Blue (Libretto, Tazewell Thompson); A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck (Tony Kushner); The Lion, The Unicorn and Me (J.D. McClatchy); and the upcoming Grounded(George Brant).
She is the founding artistic director of New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center Series. Recent film credits include Supervising Vocal Producer for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. In addition to her work as a composer, she is the founding creative director of A BroaderWay, an arts empowerment program for young women, and a lecturer at Yale University.
Tazewell Thompson is an internationally acclaimed theater and opera director and award-winning playwright. He has directing credits, more than 150, many world and American premieres, in major opera houses and theaters across the USA, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Africa, Japan and Canada. His award-winning play, Constant Star, has had 16 productions in major theaters across the country; Mary T & Lizzy K, commissioned by Molly Smith and produced at Arena Stage, is the recipient of The Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award; author of Jam & Spice; an adaptation of A Christmas Carol; and a contributing writer to Our War, short plays for Arena Stage. His a cappella musical Jubilee: Fisk Jubilee Singers had its world premiere spring of 2019 at Arena Stage. He has play commissions from Lincoln Center Theatre and People’s Light & Theatre Company. His production of Porgy and Bess, broadcast Live from Lincoln Center, received EMMY Award nominations for Best Director, and Best Production, classical music. He holds the record of directing three productions: Appomattox/ Philip Glass, Lost in the Stars/ Kurt Weill, and Cato in Utica/ Vivaldi, all in the same season in three different theaters at The Kennedy Center. His opera Blue, with composer Jeanine Tesori, commissioned by Francesca Zambello, had its world premiere in July 2019, at Glimmerglass Festival; followed by the world premiere of Freedom Ride/ Dan Shore for Chicago Opera Theatre.