How Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter Realized His Dream: an Opera

In fall 2018, Esperanza Spalding had just released “12 Little Spells,” a bold foray into using music as a healing practice, and a significant creative leap in her career. She was a newly minted professor at Harvard University, and thriving in the role.

But Spalding — the virtuoso bassist, vocalist and four-time Grammy winner who is on the shortlist of young musicians representing jazz to the greater public — was worried.

Her concern was “Iphigenia,” the opera that she was working on with her musical hero-turned-mentor-turned-collaborator, the saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. His health was fading fast, and the opera was threatening to become his Sagrada Familia: a monument to what might have been.

Shorter had a long-simmering dream to produce a full opera, eventually landing on an update of the ancient Greek myth of Iphigenia. When he mentioned it to Spalding, she felt a “stirring in my spirit,” she said.

“We should make that happen,” Spalding remembered thinking, in a phone interview last month. “He’s your mentor, your elder. You just want to do what’s needed.” She pledged to make it a reality — and ultimately agreed, at Shorter’s urging, to write the libretto to go with his music, and to sing the lead.

But the writing proved slow-going, and she churned through countless drafts without finding a connection to the subject matter. By late 2018, Shorter was in a bad way: He could no longer really play the saxophone, and a metabolic tremor left him unable to write music by hand. Spalding was starting to see “a version of reality” in which “he doesn’t get to have this thing made,” she said. “So then we kicked into overdrive.”

Shorter and Spalding leading a rehearsal in Los Angeles.Credit…via Real Magic

She checked in with Shorter, to make sure he still felt enough passion for the project. His response was classic Shorter: indirect, poetic, but clear. “I want to make real magic,” he said. “No tricks, no gimmicks.”

Spalding took the cue. She asked for a year off from Harvard and decamped to Los Angeles, where she and Shorter collaborated on the opera each day. They decided that working with an opera company was too constrictive, so they amicably parted ways with Opera Philadelphia, which had initially agreed to mount the production, and set about building their own team.

The famed architect Frank Gehry came on to draft the set designs, and the director Lileana Blain-Cruz came aboard to bring the story onstage. They named the company Real Magic.

In an interview, Shorter said he had been lifted by the dedication of Spalding, a fellow traveler. “Esperanza has a mission,” he said, punctuating each word, his 88-year-old voice crackling with excitement. “I don’t know exactly what it is, but it couples with my mission — and the mission that I think a lot of people should discover within themselves.”

Shorter learned in mid-2019 that his house was riddled with toxic mold, worsening his decline, so he and his wife, Carolina, moved into Gehry’s empty home in Santa Monica. Spalding moved in as well, and it became a habitat of music-making, movie-watching (Shorter is an intense buff) and trading ideas. Collaborators dropped in often, including the members of Shorter’s longtime quartet, whom he wrote into the score as a kind of counterweight to the full orchestra.

“This was all about invention: Esperanza was inventing, Wayne was inventing, and I got to invent alongside of them,” Gehry, 92, said in an interview. “It was really a jazz concert, from the beginning to end.”

And somehow, the experience seemed to restore Shorter’s health. He regained strength, and his tremor subsided. Dosed up with inspiration, he would often rise at 3 a.m., wheel himself to his writing desk, and continue composing the music to “Iphigenia” by hand — with pen, Wite-Out and a ruler.

“Iphigenia,” eight years in the making and decades in the dreaming, will begin a run of performances this month, starting with open rehearsals at Mass MoCA on Thursday and Friday, a full debut in Boston on Nov. 12 and 13, and performances in the coming months in Washington, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

“We should make that happen,” Spalding remembered thinking, when she learned that Shorter wanted to make an opera. “He’s your mentor, your elder. You just want to do what’s needed.”Credit…via Real Magic

SHORTER, BROADLY UNDERSTOOD to be the foremost living composer in jazz, often talks about the need for bravery, in art and life. (“A definition of faith is to fear nothing,” he said in our interview.) And he speaks of starring “in the movie of your own life,” by which he basically means taking control.

He has been enamored of comic-book heroes since he was a child, and his most recent album, the triple-disc orchestral behemoth “Emanon,” came packaged with a comic that Shorter had helped create, about a rebel hero fighting off evil in a dystopian world.

To him, the Iphigenia character is a figure whose heroism has gone unsung. In “Iphigenia in Aulis,” the last great work by the Athenian playwright Euripides, she volunteers to be sacrificed in order to help her countrymen wage war, but she’s mysteriously saved by the goddess Artemis. “I think he wanted to send a message,” Shorter said of Euripides, calling the play a subtle comment on the barbarity of war, and pointing out that the women characters — both the heroic Iphigenia and the pestilent Helen — are actually positioned as convenient distractions from the male characters’ greed.

Social critics have long turned to Euripides’s plays, especially “Iphigenia in Aulis,” “Iphigenia in Taurus” and “Medea,” which also features a woman tangled up in the whims of the gods. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch playwright Samuel Coster mounted a production of “Iphigenia” that mocked the Calvinist clergy of his day, who ultimately had it banned. Coster’s adaptation, in turn, fed inspiration to the painter Jan Steen, whose 1671 canvas “The Sacrifice of Iphigenia” contained within it a sardonic critique of the religious and political powers of the time. Shorter is also fascinated by a version of “Iphigenia in Taurus” — which tells of Iphigenia’s life after she escapes from sacrifice — that was translated in the 1700s by the German poet Goethe. Not long after Shorter and Spalding decided to take on “Iphigenia,” the writer Rachel Cusk put out a wrenching, modernized telling of “Medea” that won critical praise.

In the 21st century, Shorter has stepped more fully into orchestral writing. “Iphigenia” won’t be the first time he has paired his quartet with a Western orchestra.Credit…Erik Carter for The New York Times

But as Spalding read versions of the Iphigenia myth, she had a hard time finding any kind of heroism that she could relate to. “Every version I read, I was not finding that,” she said. “The layers started to peel away, and I was like, ‘Oh, right, the protagonists didn’t write the story.’”

She started to think about how she could craft a fuller version of Iphigenia, perhaps by unloosing more of her internal monologue, and even by refusing to present her as a single, straightforward character.

A breakthrough came, midway through the writing process, thanks to a series of workshops at Harvard, co-led by the musicologist Carolyn Abbate and including a small group of student collaborators. Spalding brought bits of Shorter’s composition-in-progress to the group, and they developed those pieces in community.

As she heard various voices responding to the parts that Shorter had written, Spalding said, “the shapes that were in the music started to seem very clear to me.”

Abbate had recommended that Spalding read a 1979 book, “Opera, or the Undoing of Women,” by the French philosopher Catherine Clément, which reckons with the ways that opera’s splendors are so often masks for simple chauvinism. (“The prima donna is the prisoner of a machinery,” Clément writes, attacking the standard female lead in opera. “She is a living doll to be carried off and taken around for one’s personal pleasure.”)

“That book encouraged me to be like, ‘Actually, my gift is that I’m not in opera. My gift is that I don’t know how to write these stories. My gift is that I don’t know the tropes,’” Spalding said.

Spalding decided to include entire passages in the libretto contributed by other writers: the musician and scholar Ganavya, and the poets Joy Harjo and Safiya Sinclair. She had sought them out for advice, but ended up seeing no reason not to add their words in full.

She distributed the Iphigenia character across five different voices, allowing for conflicting feelings to be expressed under the same person’s name, and removing the pressure for a lone figure to take a leap against impossible odds.

And of course, Spalding ultimately changed some things about how Iphigenia handles the question of her own sacrifice.

Spalding said she eventually realized, “My gift is that I don’t know how to write these stories. My gift is that I don’t know the tropes.’”Credit…via Real Magic

ON A RECENT Monday afternoon in Manhattan, Spalding glided about the rehearsal studio at the Park Avenue Armory, sliding and stretching and perpetually moving like a cat limbering up after a long nap. Her voice joined four other Iphigenias as they let loose the mix of sung and spoken words that start Act II. A rehearsal pianist swept through Shorter’s fast-moving, venturesome harmonies, holding the place of the orchestra, as the conductor Clark Rundell guided the vocalists along.

Rundell has been working with Shorter for close to a decade, and he peppered his instructions with awe-struck asides about how marvelously “Wayne” all these shifting harmonies were. At this stage in Shorter’s career, he often changes chords and even entire keys on virtually every beat — and this music was no exception.

“Uncomfortable is a given, but if it gets too uncomfortable let me know,” Rundell said jokingly, making it clear he was willing to bargain with the vocalists on questions of tempo and dynamics. Shorter’s handwritten scores are done in painstaking detail, but they generally don’t prescribe the speed or volume at which the music is to be played. “It’s really much more like playing Handel and Purcell, music that was written with no dynamics, in which you need to use your own taste and judgment,” Rundell said in an interview.

Blain-Cruz, the director (who was awarded a Doris Duke Artist Award last month; Shorter received an award in the same batch), said that the score and libretto were filled with “Easter eggs.” Although the music is extremely difficult, she said, which can make blocking and flow a challenge, it “lends itself to an atmosphere of playfulness: ‘Cool, we’re going to try this, and why don’t you pick your notes?’ That freedom is invigorating to the process.”

Shorter has stayed home on the West Coast while the company rehearses, but he tunes into rehearsals via Zoom. And until a couple weeks ago, he was still feeding new sheet music to Spalding and Rundell, continuing what has been a collaborative, evolving process throughout, in which every new addition or change — be it from Shorter, Spalding, a cast member or someone else — is worth responding to.

Watching the rehearsals at the Armory on video, Shorter was having a full-circle moment. In the 1950s, when he was an undergrad at New York University, he went to weekly ROTC drills at the very same Park Avenue Armory, which was then still a military building. Around that time Shorter first hatched the idea to write an opera, titled “The Singing Lesson,” about a girl in New York City whose brother is in a motorcycle gang. When “West Side Story” came out, he ditched the idea.

Soon he became a known saxophonist around town, and a writer with a special voice. He became the main composer for whatever bands he joined, from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to the Miles Davis Quintet. Boldly declarative but coolly farseeing, his compositions expanded the range of harmonic possibility in jazz. Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, he jumped outside of it, playing with the jazz-rock fusion band Weather Report and delving into Brazilian traditions and electronic-music frontiers.

Throughout the 21st century he has maintained a steady acoustic quartet (Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums) for the first time in his career, and he has stepped more fully into orchestral writing. “Iphigenia” won’t be the first time he has paired the quartet with a Western orchestra.

One particularly successful orchestral composition was “Gaia,” a major work that debuted in 2013. Also conducted by Rundell, it was Shorter’s first collaboration with Spalding, and it’s probably what gave both him and Spalding the confidence to undertake something as ambitious as “Iphigenia.”

For her part, Spalding might see all the work of the past few years as feeding into a larger project, given how much the collaborative, antiheroic approach of “Iphigenia” comports with her solo work. Earlier this year, she released “Songwrights Apothecary Lab,” a collection of music that grew out of a residency she began during the pandemic in Oregon, bringing out musicians, healers and other artists of color to create something together.

Though she collected the results as an album, she sees the “Songwrights” project as existing in the real world — as a place, and as a practice — more than being summed up in a recording. And when she presents the music live after the pandemic, she said, she won’t simply be playing it at festivals and clubs.

“It’s not the festival 70-minute slot,” she said. “I definitely am more interested in a longer-form performance model, where we set up shop somewhere and I can do listening and learning in conversation.”

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