Skip to content


by on 21 April 2023

BLM: the Opera!


by Jeanine Tesori, libretto by Tazewell Thompson

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 4th May

Review by Patrick Shorrock

On Saturday 22nd April, it is thirty years since the murder of Stephen Lawrence by a gang of youths.  Both the MacPherson and the Casey Reports – a little over twenty years apart – accused the Metropolitan Police Force of being “institutionally racist”.  So it may be seen either as timely, or as provocative, for ENO to be putting on a 2019 opera from America about a young black man murdered by a white policeman.  In either case, we cannot pretend that the issues it raises are historic or confined to the United States; and this is the relevance of Blue

Its depiction of the pain of one family who have lost their child – as a result of acts by those who are meant to serve and protect – is emotionally devastating and rightly so.  The beauty of Jeanine Tesori’s music – very much blues and Gospel based – doesn’t hide the anguish, and rises in Act 2 to a positively Verdian grandeur of grief, presided over by Ronald Samms’s The Reverend, who ultimately realises that words have nothing to add here.   

Tellingly Tesori’s opera (libretto by Tazewell Thompson) doesn’t depict the murder – the murderer doesn’t even figure in the cast – or provide any details of it.  Instead it focuses on the victim: his early life, cut cruelly short, and the anguish of his surviving parents.  In a nice blow to the stereotype, this is a very middle class black family, with the Mother (Nadine Benjamin in thrilling voice ) having a thriving restaurant business, the Father (Kenneth Kellogg, creator of the role) a policeman, and the Son (Zwakele Tshabalala, very impressive) a vegan. 

This deliberate refusal to give space to the murderer makes the piece much more representative of all those who have lost loved ones to criminal action.  But it does have the effect of creating a lack of dramatic urgency in the first act, which feels like backstory.  And watching Kellogg put on police uniform isn’t exactly a dramatic start to the opera.  We see the characters sit around and discuss the Mother’s pregnancy.  In a hint of what is to come the Rhinemaiden-like trio of girlfriends (Chanáe Curtis, Sarah-Jane Lewis, and Idunnu Münch) “Thou shalt bring forth no black boys into this world”.  There is a beautiful scene in which the Nurse teaches the Father how to hold his baby son.  But it all feels a bit too leisurely. 

The problem with Act 1 is intensified by the way that Tesori is very much on her operatic best behaviour.  She is the composer of two very effective musicals both done in London before the pandemic – Fun Home at the Young Vic and Caroline or Change at the Hampstead Theatre.  But it is as though she is determined to demonstrate that she doesn’t depend on mere tunes to make an impact.  The result is quirky and intermittently interesting, but just a bit dull: very fine quality note spinning rather than experience that absolutely has to be expressed in musical form.  Nor is it exactly easy to sing, although the cast rise well to the challenge.  Fortunately, she lets her hair down in Act 2, when the music is much more direct and immediate. 

Tinuke Craig’s production and Alex Lowde’s ingenious set with its rotating box in a circle don’t help.  The main action feels placed some way back as though there is a barrier between the cast and the audience when there isn’t one, even though some expressive video backdrops from Ravi Deepres provide some compensation.  It makes all the difference when the cast start to come forward in Act 2 for the extended funeral and can look the audience in the eye.  Matthew Kofi Waldren and the orchestra also seem more galvanised after the interval.  The piece concludes with a devastating flashback and ends with what may feel like an anti-climax, but which then lingers horribly in the mind. 

There is so much to admire here even if it wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping.  It exciting that ENO are refusing to play safe and wonderful to encounter an opera that engages so directly and effectively with today’s issues.   The musical language is very accessible, particularly in Act 2, which feels much more devastating than Act 1 on a first hearing, although I wonder if the first act might have more to offer on a second hearing than on a first. 

Patrick Shorrock, April 2023

Photography by Zoe Martin

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: