esperanza spalding Brings Wayne Shorter’s Opera to Life in Berkeley

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esperanza spalding is dressed in white as a chorus of singers in multicolored outfits grabs her arms.
esperanza spalding is the librettist and star of '...(Iphigenia),' an opera composed by jazz great Wayne Shorter. (Jon Fine)

At the San Francisco Symphony’s season opener last fall, esperanza spalding mesmerized the audience with her performance of Gaia, her collaboration with Wayne Shorter. The 88-year-old saxophonist and jazz luminary composed a cinematic piece that spoke to humanity’s connection to the earth. And spalding, 37 years old and a musical force in her own right, sang her original lyrics with a captivating intensity and improbable range. She was on double duty, playing bass backed by the orchestra, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, NEA Jazz Master and drummer Terri Lynne Carrington and pianist Leo Genovese. The synergy of musical greatness on stage was nothing short of magic.

The San Francisco Symphony performance showcased the fascinating, intergenerational musical conversations Shorter and spalding have been having since they wrote Gaia in 2013. And now, their collaboration has culminated in Shorter’s first opera ...(Iphigenia), which gets its West Coast premiere at Cal Performances at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall this Saturday, Feb. 12.

esperanza spalding and Wayne Shorter in rehearsal. (Real Magic)

The story reimagines an Ancient Greek play, Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. In the original story, King Agamemnon offers his daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to the goddess Artemis on the eve of battle. But in Shorter and spalding’s take, Iphigenia gets to tell the story and question its misogynistic and militaristic impulses. spalding wrote the libretto and plays the title character, who is fractured into six personas.

A host of stellar collaborators worked on ...(Iphigenia), including a 28-piece chamber ensemble, the rhythm section of Shorter’s quartet, nine vocalists, a chorus of 10 singers, set designer Frank Gehry (yes, the world-renowned architect) and Obie-winning director Lileana Blain-Cruz.

Tickets and details for ...(Iphigenia) can be found here.