The source material may be ancient, but jazz legend Wayne Shorter’s new opera, written in collaboration with Esperanza Spalding, a Harvard professor and Grammy-winning bassist-singer, looks to the future, not the past.
“Iphigenia,” a project Shorter began thinking about in the 1950s, is a bold reimagining of the classical figure, daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. Spalding wrote the libretto for the show and is performing in it. The renowned architect Frank Gehry, who has studied and taught at Harvard, designed the sets. Eight years in the making, the opera made its worldwide debut Nov. 12 in Boston.
Shorter, 88, is a trailblazing composer and saxophonist who first made his name as principal songwriter for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in the 1950s and played in Miles Davis’ second classic quintet. In 1971, he formed Weather Report, which pioneered the avant-garde style known as jazz fusion.
Shorter and Spalding spoke to the Gazette about their collaboration. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding
GAZETTE: What made you decide to finally take this project up after so many years?
SHORTER: It was always in the back of my mind. I don’t like things undone. And especially with this, it’s like a road sign in my life. It’s a road sign about what encompasses my mission for living while living. What is the mission? What’s involved with my mission?
GAZETTE: What inspired you to get on board with this project? Did you find the prospect of writing the libretto to an opera Shorter has been thinking about for 60-plus years at all daunting?
SPALDING: In terms of living up to, I had to put that down a long time ago. The music itself, and just Wayne’s mysticism and spirit and creatorship — it’s so profound. He’s an anomaly. So, I think those of us who get the privilege of working with him, we give up the idea of “matching.” It’s more like, how can I be reflective to the majesty and the beauty of what he’s offering?
In this case, I wasn’t originally slated to be librettist. I was just helping Wayne connect with people that I thought could help get his opera made. Over time, I became a part of the producing team and was looking at other writers, thinking about who could be a good fit for him, people who understood the significance of him as a creator. Then his partner, she kept telling me “Wayne really wants you to write it.” I was like, “Oh, no, no, no. No way.” I guess I just gave in. I was like, “Well, I have to trust his opinion.”
I’m blessed by the work, blessed by this opportunity. But it is really daunting to craft narrative shape when the music already exists. He had written all of the music, so it was a really a dance of learning to surrender what I thought it was going to say next, and hearing what the music seemed to be saying or portraying, and letting that inform how the narrative unfolded. I will say that the way that our story moves is totally informed by the way Wayne wrote. Since this is the music, what story is being told here in this context of Iphigenia? That’s really how the narrative arc took shape.