After 138 years of non-inclusion, the Metropolitan Opera finally raised the curtain of its 2021-2022 season with “Fire Shut Up in my Bones,” their first opera to be composed by a Black composer, Terence Blanchard. The opera is based on a 2014 memoir by New York Times opinion columnist Charles M. Blow, an intense emotional rollercoaster ride of a young Black boy coming of age in rural north Louisiana, coping with sexual molestation, inner rage, confusion and self-discovery. The opera boasts an all-Black cast with a libretto by the writer, filmmaker/director and actress Kasi Lemmons and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
“I would give language to all the others who had suffered as I had. I would show them what it looked like to survive the pain, betrayal and isolation and come out on the other side,” explained Blow in his NYT column relating to his memoir.
Blanchard’s ”Fire Shut Up in My Bones“ opened while the country is still battling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that closed the Met in March 2020. However, this historical cultural moment for Black people and the Met would not be stopped by any pandemic. After opening night, the house remains at capacity (3,800 seats) and Blacks are supporting this opera with vigorous enthusiasm.
Blanchard gives credit to Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, for accepting the challenge of becoming more diversified with mainstage opera presentations. The five-time Grammy award winner didn’t want to be just a token working out of a vacuum. Earlier this year the Met recruited composers Valerie Coleman, Jessie Montgomery and Joel Thompson to its commissioning program. Geib acknowledged the brutal police killing of George Floyd followed by international protest marches, and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked the institution to respond. Blanchard agrees that many folks see Floyd’s killing as the catalyst that moved such institutions as the Met towards diversity. He also recognizes the fight for equality and inclusion started long before. The early execution of George Stinney, Jr., the killing of Emmitt Till, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the 14th Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, yes, the brush of the civil rights struggle has a very broad stroke and continues. The Met softly touched the surface of inclusion in 1955 when contralto Marian Anderson became the first African American to perform at the opera house.
“I’m honored, but I’m not the first qualified person to be here,” said Blanchard. “Scott Joplin, Hale Smith and William Grant Still were very accomplished in in their creative endeavors as composers and they all deserved to have their music played here. They paved the way for me.”
The difference in writing a film score (he has scored 40 including 17 of Spike Lee’s films, earning Oscar nominations for 2018′s “BlacKkKlansman” as well as 2020′s “Da 5 Bloods.” Quincy Jones scored 24 films not counting scores for TV series) explains Blanchard, is that “I am helping someone else tell their story 90% of the time. In composing an opera, I am telling the story the way I feel it happened from beginning to end.” He is still fine-tuning his skills on composing for voices. “When you write for cello, you write for cello,” he said. “But no baritone is the same; no tenor is the same. And all those voices, where do they bloom in their registers? So being able to control that and manipulate it, that’s been a huge learning curve.” Blanchard’s composing style is based on jazz technique that includes charting the rhythms of the text and a series of chord progressions, from which the melodies emerge.
This may be the first time a jazz quartet and the orchestra share the Met’s pit. Even so, there is no real swinging. Blanchard noted that he didn’t want it to sound like Count Basie’s band but he has effortlessly blended the mix of jazz, blues and gospel in the larger classical pond.
Unlike most contemporary operas in French, Italian or German, this one rests in English, offering a more complete indulgence for the audience. There were definitive scenes where I felt the music tugged at my emotions. When the molestation was about to take place in the bedroom with Char’es-Baby (played by the treble Walter Russell III), one could experience his fear, anxiety and utter anger in not being able to protect himself. As the journey unfolds, we meet an older Charles (played by the baritone Will Liverman) as a student at Grambling State College. During a love scene, he pours out his heart and shares his deeply held secret to Greta (played by Angel Blue) only to be informed she has a boyfriend. He is completely devastated, but Blanchard’s music brings all these emotions to life.
One of the most dynamic music scenes take place in Act III, the Kappa Alpha Psi step show. It is that special night when the pledge period is over and it’s time for the now new brothers to perform on stage. The Kappas are known for their dynamic steps, “Kappa Kane” and “cane walk.” As a former graduate of an HBCU and having attended many Greek nights, the staged Kappa portrayal couldn’t have been more authentic. Camille A. Brown is both the production’s choreographer and one of its co-directors, in partnership with James Robinson. She also choreographed the Met’s 2019 production of Porgy and Bess which returns to the Met in late October, and knew that she wanted to include a step dance. “I thought it was especially important here,” she says of her expanded choreography. “We are talking about bringing a step that comes from the rich history of the African diaspora inside the Metropolitan Opera, where, at one point, Black people were not allowed on stage.” With this latest credit she makes some additional “Fire” history as the first Black female director to create a main stage production at the Met.
“I related to a lot of things in the book,” said Blanchard, also a native of Louisiana, like Blow. “I felt his sense of isolation that he was going through in life.” These same feelings are expressed in the composer’s music that pulls your emotional strings like a master puppeteer, as the acting draws you into a deep wrenching story that crosses racial lines and all levels of society.
William Grant Still first performed in 1963, at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in Missouri. At the same opera theater 50 years later in 2013 Blanchard’s first opera, Champion, premiered, the life of boxer Emile Griffith. “Fire Shut Up in my Bones” premiered there in 2019; and the composer Anthony Davis’s opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” also premiered there and will receive its Met premiere in 2023. “The Opera Theater of St. Louis is very aggressive when it comes to new works,” stated Blanchard during our phone interview.
Although his father was a parttime opera singer, composing operas was not on his list. “Going to his rehearsals every Wednesday night made a mark on my brain for sure,” said the musician.
The production will travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago in March and the Los Angeles Opera in a future season.
While opening night is over, Blanchard says the butterflies are still in his stomach although he is sitting in the audience. “I always feel I can make things better but the response from the community is great and I am over the moon about it.” Blanchard tries to attend the performance every night, saying “it’s not every day I get to compose an opera.” I could see his smile through the phone.