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Orchestral symphony meets jazz improv in opera ‘Iphigenia’

Jazz legend Wayne Shorter and four-time Grammy-winner esperanza spalding’s new opera Iphigenia is an audacious rendition to a 2,400 year-old Greek myth that redefines what opera can be and invites audiences to question what happens when we go off script.

At 88, Shorter is a living jazz icon. The 11-time Grammy-winning composer and saxophonist wrote the music and 37-year-old spalding (she prefers her name in lower case), the libretto.

Iphigenia at Aulis is a tale about the sacrifice women make for men. In the myth, Iphigenia is sacrificed by her father King Agamemnon to placate the goddess Artemis so she would agree to release the wind the men needed to set sail off to the Trojan war.

On stage, opera embraces the collaborative, spontaneous spirit of jazz, letting the two forms simultaneously melt and collide. “Fortunately, Wayne Shorter is the consummate master improviser and his philosophy has been influencing us for the creation of the piece, including opera singers most of whom said they had never improvised before,” spalding said.

Spalding responds to Shorter’s full orchestral score of symphonic improvisation with a twist to the myth. In their version, there are six distinct Iphigenias and the leading one ends up being saved by Artemis before she goes on to find her voice.

Spalding, also a bassist, composer, and vocalist, plays the title role. She performs the resurrected central Iphigenia that confronts the expectations of a sexist, patriarchal society and questions the choices we make as a society.

Shorter and spalding, two jazz revolutionaries, pit their wits against each other for years to create their project.

Following the two sold-out performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, and at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, the opera will travel to California in February 2022 with two shows, one at Cal Performances at UC Berkeley and at the Broad Stage in Los Angeles.