Opera ‘Iphigenia’ world premiere at Cutler Majestic Theatre Nov. 12 and 13


Courtesy of Pennello

Grammy Award-winning composer, bassist, and vocalist esperanza spalding.

By Karissa Schaefer, Deputy Living Arts Editor

“Iphigenia,” an opera inspired by the Greek myth of the same name, will be making its world premiere at the Cutler Majestic Theater on Nov. 12 and 13, transforming the traditional tale to fit a contemporary setting. 

The opera blends jazz and classical music, featuring Grammy Award-winning composer, bassist, and vocalist esperanza spalding as well as Grammy-winning jazz legend Wayne Shorter. 

An Emerson course on theater and social justice taught by Dana Edell, an assistant theater professor and Ancient Greece scholar, partnered with ArtsEmerson for the production. Edell said she has been teaching the original play for 15 years at various universities and felt like it was a “beautiful coincidence” that the reimagining was able to come together this fall. 

“[Iphigenia has] always been a core to my thinking about theater and social justice and activism,” Edell said. “It’s been a great opportunity for my students to get to really engage with esperanza and her team, and also think about using the play as a launch point to have deeper discussions about social justice, which is what my students are doing.”

Euripides’ Greek myth of Iphigenia, the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, is a tale of sacrifice. As Agamemnon led his Greek troops to Troy during the Trojan War, he offended the goddess Artemis by accidentally killing a deer in a sacred grove. In retaliation, Artemis messes with the wind, preventing the Greek troops from sailing. To reach Troy, Agamemnon would have to sacrifice Iphigenia, which he first refuses, but ultimately does to appease Artemis. 

Euripides, a playwright, was very much against the seemingly never ending Peloponnesian War, which is represented in the opera’s themes. 

“The play is about the moments before and during his decision of whether to sacrifice his daughter in order to live,” Edell said. “There was a deep connection between politics and theater in ancient Greece, and I think that the throughline of politics and theater has extended from ancient Greece through today.”

The libretto—text of an opera—put on by spalding challenges the history of operas in a poetic, radicalized way. Iphigenia is amplified on stage, as a chorus of five people portray her identity. Rather than directly adapting the Greek myth, the opera is instead an “intervention into myth-making itself, and an intervention into music and opera as we know it,” according to the production’s website

“Iphigenia” demands a future of change in the world of myths and operas. No longer should there be distraught, hysterical women in scenes with perfect pitch. No longer should there be women at their most vulnerable for the advancement of another, both in stories and on stage. Edell describes Iphigenia’s tale as a powerful story about sacrificing the vulnerable for the greater good, and a metaphor for how society views and uses womens’ bodies. 

“The theater space is a space to dig into difficult conversations and to represent huge themes about what it means to be human and make the choices we make,” she said. “This play has the potential to ignite some of those discussions about who we are. What are we going to do to get what we want? What are we going to sacrifice along the way?”

This project––which took spalding and Shorter, her mentor-turned-collaborator, eight years to develop––is spalding’s first libretto. As spalding adds a new experience to her collection of work, she expands beyond her skills and is asking other operas to do so through “Iphigenia.” spalding and Shorter are bringing a new perspective on the life of Iphigenia. 

While Shorter—who composed the show’s music—doesn’t perform the music, his esteemed quartet fills the rhythm section of the 28-piece ensemble. They’re accompanied by nine vocalists and 10 chorus singers. The show also showcases set design by famed architect Frank Gehry and is directed by Obie Award-winner Lileana Blain-Cruz. 

spalding spoke to Edell’s class last month, offering production ideas and insight into the deconstruction and use of “Iphigenia’s” text. As a long-time fan of spalding’s music, Edell is eager to see the final project. 

“I can’t wait to hear the music that she’s created, to see how she has made the story of Iphigenia relevant today, and what it means to put it on stage right now in 2021,” Edell said. 

Edell will be moderating a discussion that will take place on Monday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m., featuring spalding, Boston artist U-Meleni Mhlaba-Adebo, musicologist Carolyn Abbate, and founder of Boston While Black Sheena Collier. The 90-minute conversation will be livestreamed and held in person at the Paramount Center.  

“We’re going to be talking about the ways [Collier’s] organization fosters community among Black people here in Boston,” Edell said. “esperanza’s going to be talking about her process for the show, what it means to her, and how it was created. Abbate is a renowned music scholar, so she’ll help us contextualize the performance through the lens of opera. esperanza and Wayne have really broken up the idea of what opera can be through the way they’ve developed the music and using jazz as a core structure of opera.” 

“I’m really excited about how the whole show comes together and I’m looking forward to a really rich discussion about the impact of the show on communities and how the themes are relevant today,” Edell continued.