Review: Iphigenia, the Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding way

Characters in fantastically colored costumes traverse a stage framed in billowing gold.
Esperanza Spalding, center, in “... (Iphigenia),” which she wrote with Wayne Shorter. The sets are by Frank Gehry.
(Ben Gibbs / Broad Stage)

“Nothing is what I’m try to keep and go forward with. Nothing. Thank you.”

Those were Wayne Shorter’s parting words to the audience at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Friday night after the Southern California premiere of his opera “... (Iphigenia).”

For the record:

11:47 a.m. Feb. 21, 2022

The premiere of “...(Iphigenia)” was in November at Arts Emerson in Boston, not in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

An earlier version of this review omitted one of the production’s Iphigenias: Kelly Guerra, who played Iphigenia Unbound.

That nothing is not nothing. It is nothing made out of something. It can be the imagination at play, beyond explanation, Shorter explained.

“... (Iphigenia)” contains 100 minutes of gripping music for orchestra, jazz trio and a good-sized cast of singers. The opera is the magnificent capstone of one of the all-time great jazz careers. Writing an opera, the 88-year-old saxophonist and composer has said, has been his ambition for decades.


To make it finally happen, he has collaborated with bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, who wrote the libretto, stars in the production and was the indispensable motivating force for the opera. Architect Frank Gehry, who designed the set, was the third partner. After many workshops, the premiere was held in November at Arts Emerson in Boston.

With several co-commissioners in addition to the Broad, “... (Iphigenia)” has since traveled, Santa Monica being one of its last stops Friday and Saturday. But, like Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” this happens to find company in a handful of important L.A. operas. Shorter wrote the score at his desk in Hollywood, in what has been described as a graphically beautiful longhand. Much of the opera was put together and rehearsed in Gehry’s original Santa Monica house, an easy walk from the Broad.

Many others were ultimately involved. Conductor Clark Rundell is credited with additional orchestrations for the 28-piece pit chamber ensemble. Composer Caroline Shaw is among those who contributed to the luxurious vocal arrangements. U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo is among those who contributed additional text.

In the end, it is easier to say what this questioning, seemingly contradictory opera is not than what it is. It is not a jazz opera but a confident, commanding, full-blown American opera with jazz elements. For Spalding, the opera is not so much a modernization of enduring myth as a disruption of the power of myth, an emboldened empowering of the mythological Iphigenia.

We are told from the start by an Usher (Brenda Pressley in the speaking role), who walks around the theater before the opera begins, that Iphigenia’s is a terrible story we should reject. On his way to fight the Trojan War, King Agamemnon accidentally kills a favorite stag of Artemis, the goddess of wild animals and chastity. She demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia or there will be no wind for the warriors’ sails.

In the ancient plays by Euripides, in retellings by Ovid, Racine and Goethe, in operas by Gluck, in contemporary novels by Barry Unsworth, Ismail Kadare and Colm Tóibín, in a film by Michael Cacoyannis and in a number of plays, the account of and fascination with Iphigenia has taken many turns. She is sacrificed or not in Aulis. She finds her way to Tauris and becomes a chaste priestess for Artemis, or she gets married, or she is actually the goddess.


Agamemnon is horrified and thwarts Artemis, or doesn’t. This much is consistent: War is war; wind is wind; the gods are the gods. And virgins are expendable.

Except they are not, as Spalding summons Iphigenia Unbound, Iphigenia of the Sea, Iphigenia the Elder, Iphigenia the Younger and Iphigenia of the Light in her fight against victimization. Iphigenia of the Open Tense — a dazzling, if bemused, modern woman in a silver jumpsuit, portrayed by Spalding — takes matters into her own hands.

The opera, which is in three acts and plays without a break, opens with the sacrificial throat slashing of an Iphigenia. The Usher, now onstage, tries to stop it but is cut off. More slain Iphigenias will soon litter the stage. After each dies, the surtitles announce that the wind blows.

In Lileana Blain-Cruz’s ungainly production, the Greek soldiers, in hokey costumes suitable for a school play, are a bloodthirsty lot. They party like frat boys and march to war like hyped-up athletes about to take the field for football practice, singing their rah-rah choruses. The Usher calls them wind mongers.

The Iphigenias are allowed far nicer individual wardrobes but are not necessarily identified. They sing ethereal lines to radiant music. A painted backdrop of a wintry forest takes on different meanings in different lights and dimensions as it flutters in wind.

Through it all the orchestra, potently conducted by Rundell, is the controlling force. Shorter’s melodic motives convey grandeur; his harmonic language enriches all it touches. Where the music goes defies simple logic. Like a force of nature, it doesn’t tell us how to think or feel or what is happening. It is the nothing from which something may arise. When vocal lines are mirrored by the instruments, the effect is not of the music insisting but of giving voice to a spirit.


For the second act, the curtain falls to reveal a jazz trio — Danilo Pérez (piano), John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums), the members of Shorter’s longtime quartet. Their role is improvisatory. The bare stage is for the Iphigenias and their stories. Each has her distinctive vocal style, be it chant, scat or something more traditionally operatic. Each, in her own way and with her own history, seeks to be unbound from myth, and they form a chorus. Iphigenia of the Open Tense awakens.

Act 3 begins with a spectacular effect. With brass blazing, the orchestra and the trio sound a brilliant new day dawning. Wondrous, diaphanous, cloud-like mobile Gehry sculptures appear. They take to light with even greater effect than the forest backdrop. This is the opening up of space and time and sound for Iphigenia of the Open Tense.

There is a foolish bit with a TV host and a cameraperson, as if this were a Met broadcast. But the Greek soldiers become more reflective as the women begin to take over. Iphigenia thinks more deeply about sacrifice. War is man’s folly, but sacrifice has meaning. She accepts that there can be empowerment in dying to save Greeks, although she is stopped from having to be a victim of myth.

As she steps out of myth and leads the five other Iphigenias to a new land, the opera can’t escape myth, however much Spalding tries. We now fight over minimal sacrifices, such as wearing a mask to save lives. The Taurus, to which Iphigenia goes in myth, happens to be in what is known today as Crimea, a place of still mythic struggle.

“... (Iphigenia)” asks questions it can’t answer, but that only gives it reason for future productions that, unlike this one, leave room for investigation. But keep the sets by all means. Keep the enthralling cast. Kelly Guerra, Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, Sharmay Musacchio, Nivi Ravi and Alexandra Smither are the Iphigenias. The Greeks are led by Samuel White (Agamemnon), Brad Walker (Menelaos) and Tyler Bouque (the priest Kalchas), all of whom do what they are told onstage but sing convincingly anyway. And, by all means, make a recording. The score is an operatic landmark, and the performance captures that.