Wayne Shorter talks creating opera with Esperanza Spalding ahead of Santa Monica shows – Daily Bulletin
When jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter was a New York University student in the ’50s, he decided to write an opera inspired in part by the Marlon Brando movie “The Wild One.”
“It was about a little girl taking singing lessons,” Shorter says. “They lived in Greenwich Village, the family, and the little girl and her brother stayed out all night, hanging out with the motorcycle gang with the leather jackets.
“I started working about two or three pages on this opera, to where the curtain rises,” he says. “And I saw on television that Leonard Bernstein was doing something called ‘West Side Story.’”
So much for his own New York City-based gang-themed musical project, Shorter thought.
“I put it away, and I went onto school,” he says. “I got drafted and went into the Army. And, of course, I went on with the bands I played with.
“And time went by.”
Now 88, Shorter’s career shines brightly in the history of jazz. After four years with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, he joined Miles Davis’s group – known by many as Davis’ Second Great Quintet – in 1964, playing alongside pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams.
In 1971, he co-founded the jazz fusion group Weather Report, stepping out for side projects with other artists including Joni Mitchell, with whom he played on 10 albums.
But the opera remained a dream until after moving to Los Angeles in the 2000s. He rediscovered a few pages of that long-ago work, and soon after met bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, whose restless muse meshed neatly with his own.
“I was just talking about it a little bit,” Shorter says of the opera he’d titled, “The Singing Lesson.” “And all of sudden she said, ‘Why don’t you finish it?'”
They decided to work together, Shorter on the score, Spalding on the libretto. They shifted topics from his original story to an exploration of the Greek legend of Iphigenia, in particular as portrayed in two plays by the Greek playwright Euripides.
Eight years after Shorter and Spalding decided to work together, after stops and starts including a period where Shorter’s health weakened and threw the project into doubt, the opera titled “… (Iphigenia)” comes to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica for performances on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 18-19.
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, with a set design by famed architect Frank Gehry, the production includes Spalding as one of its six different Iphigenias on stage at different points.
Shorter no longer plays saxophone, but the 28-piece orchestra is augmented by a stellar group that includes pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, all of them longtime members of his quartet.
(Pérez, Patitucci and Blade, joined by trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonists Joe Lovano and Kenny Garrett, will also perform a Wayne Shorter Celebration tribute at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 9.)
Myths and legends
Shorter, excited to talk about the project, is feeling good when he answers the phone recently.
“I’m getting along,” he says. “Like old Gene Autry used to say, ‘Get along little doggie, get along.’”
Once he and Spalding decided to use Iphigenia as the basis for their work, she dove deeply into researching the character, who, according to legend, was sacrificed by her father, King Agamemnon, to appease the goddess Artemis during the Trojan War.
“Esperanza, doing her research, kind of figured Euripides was trying to send a message, without getting caught and thrown in jail like Socrates, with forced poison and all that,” Shorter says.
“I saw a movie about Iphigenia by a Greek director, and the ending, they did do the sacrifice, but leading up to the sacrifice was some kind of dramatic finagling which made you question, Did it really happen?” Hey says.
Ultimately, Spalding’s libretto strayed from the traditional versions of Iphigenia as victim, empowering her and leaving open, as Euripides had in one of his two plays about her, the possibility that she was not killed.
“We were kind of gambling on having the faith in ourselves that we’re going after something authentic,” Shorter says. “I’m thinking that Euripides may have wanted to put the question to future generations: What are legends for? Why do we have fairy tales and legends? Is that to know more about ourselves?
“In this pandemic time that we’re living in, it gives people a lot of room to investigate life instead of complaining about this and that and everything.”
Words and music
After years of working remotely, Shorter in Los Angeles, Spalding in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she’s a music professor at Harvard, the pair finally got together in Southern California to push toward the finish in 2019.
Shorter and his wife Carolina had to leave their home when it was discovered to have a mold problem. Gehry offered them his landmark home in Santa Monica, and Spalding moved in with them.
“We had a time just doing things,” Shorter says. “She’d go into Frank Gehry’s backyard, and I’d hear her humming things. Then she would come to me sometimes: What do you think about this line?”
At another point, the Shorters and Spalding decamped to Lisbon in Portugal, renting an apartment together to work on the opera.
“She had papers glued all over her bedroom,” Shorter says. “The four walls, except the ceiling. And I was in another room.
“She didn’t see or hear what I was working on,” he says. “And then I didn’t see what she was writing.”
Somehow, Shorter says, they trusted their work would fit together in the end.
“I said, ‘It’s just like those dentures,'” he says. “The uppers might hit the lowers.”
Many see Shorter as the greatest living composer in jazz, but “… (Iphigenia” isn’t his first time mixing jazz with classical.
“I used to do that when I first started playing music,” he says. “I used to play (Dvorak’s) ‘New World Symphony’ on a Victrola when I was about 16, and try to jump in with the cellos. I tried to do it without the clarinet sticking out.”
Years later, his friend and bandmate Miles Davis asked him to compose something that fused jazz with classical.
“The last conversation I had with Miles before he passed, he called me and asked me could I write something for him for orchestra,” Shorter says. “He said, ‘Could you put a window in the strings so I can get out of there?’”
Davis also told him, “Don’t bother the orchestra. Don’t try to make them play the way you play. Let just play how they play, and you fit in.”
That’s exactly what Shorter says he did with “… (Iphigenia).” The jazz musicians, Pérez, Patitucci, and Blade, emerge from Gehry’s scenery to seamlessly merge with the orchestra, Shorter says.
“There’s no war between jazz and classics,” he says. “They’re improvising, but we made sure with the conductor that they wouldn’t stick out, so you’d say, ‘There’s the classical, there’s the jazz.’
“They knew how to meld, amalgamate, or whatever you call it,” Shorter says of his longtime bandmates. “They were like an oil painting with sound.”