*Opera, with its roots in centuries-old European classical music traditions, has made numerous changes in sound, style, and creative inclusiveness since the 19th century days of Puccini, Wagner, and Rossini. Contemporary composers have infused the form with modernity, experimentation, and the telling of more complex and diverse stories, including biographical tales of real people. On Monday night (September 27, 2021), a new level of operatic history was made with The Metropolitan Opera’s season-opening premiere of Grammy winner Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up In My Bones.”
As you may already be aware, Terence Blanchard has been best known as a jazz trumpeter and composer, whose numerous film scores for director Spike Lee’s movies have garnered him much acclaim. Working with librettist Kasi Lemmons, the actress, screenwriter and noted film director (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Harriet”), Blanchard adapted the best-selling memoir “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” by New York Times op-ed writer Charles M. Blow. The opera they created has been previewed in St. Louis and Chicago but its presentation on New York’s City’s world-renowned stage is a remarkable achievement: It is the first opera by an African American composer and librettist to be produced in The Met’s 138-year history. This is truly something to celebrate, and a powerful measure of inspiration for up-and-coming composers and librettists of color.
The excitement surrounding the premiere of the opera was further enhanced by the fact that it represented not only the opening of a new season, but the opening of The Met for the first time in more than a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of the audience arrived in traditional formal attire rivaling any red-carpet event (VIPs were invited to a post-show gala outside on the Lincoln Center Plaza). As the lights went down, the audience erupted in extended and enthusiastic applause, welcoming back not only the incredibly talented conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, now the musical director, but the venerated, scarlet and crystal attired opera house itself.
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” tells the story of Charles, who grew up in small-town Louisiana in the 1970s as the youngest of five boys and deals overall with the trauma of being molested as a 7-year-old by an older visiting cousin and how he came to terms with the pain and a search for love and acceptance as an adult. Act I, beginning with him in a vengeful frenzy as a 20-year-old, goes backward in time to his younger years, acquainting us with his dirt-poor upbringing, rowdy older brothers, loving uncle, and indomitable mother, who’s on again off again relationship with their philandering father leads to potential violence. Considered the baby of not only the family but the entire town, he is the “sensitive child of peculiar grace” who is teased about his effeminate ways. The act ends with the central event, the stealing of Charles’ innocence by his cousin Chester.
In Act II, Charles, now older, must contend with the shame of that trauma, his religious convictions, his search for love and his conflicting desires. In Act III, in lieu of heading north, far from the scene of his shame, he decides to accept a full ride to nearby Grambling University. There, he pledges Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and falls in love with a young woman to whom he confesses his secret, only to have her confess that she isn’t free and ultimately abandons him. Throughout, he is accompanied and advised by physical personifications of Destiny and Loneliness. Ultimately, the story returns to those story beginnings, where Charles is determined to take revenge on his cousin, though the younger version of himself urges him to lay down his bitterness while Destiny tells him she will stand by him regardless of his decision.
The production – co-directed by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown — is anchored by three powerful vocal performances. In the lead role as Charles, bass baritone Will Liverman does an incredible job with a role that requires him to express anger, bitterness, passion and resolve, reminding us how inner desires and demons can haunt us throughout our lives. His rich baritone grounds us in the story of a grown man, even when the roots of his hurt come from the small, sensitive child he was. And in much of the first act, his vocals double that of the young actor who portrays him as a boy, or he is silent, watching his memories play out. Portraying Billie, Charles’ mother, soprano Latonia Moore (who played Serena in The Met’s “Porgy & Bess”) is a powerhouse of vocal intensity and control, moving from sass to jealousy to maternal yearnings. Her searing high notes brought ovations in two acts. And soprano Angel Blue (Bess in The Met’s “Porgy & Bess”) has gorgeous, silvery notes in the roles of Destiny and Loneliness, while she also gives full-bodied vocal power to Greta, the college love who breaks Charles’ heart. Portraying Charles as a boy, Walter Russell III is charming and engaging, showing vocal and dancing talent far beyond his years.
Musically, Blanchard blends the dramatic and suspenseful orchestrations he is known for in his films with the sounds of gutbucket blues, gospel praises, and rhythmic interludes, creating both suspense and joy through some beautifully orchestrated passages. Relying on minor keys and characteristic layered horns and strings, Blanchard’s music will recall symphonic moments from his soundtracks, calling to mind “Malcolm X,” “Da Five Bloods,”” BlacKKKlansman,” and “Inside Man,” for example. The vocalists draw on classical vocal styles as well as African American vocal traditions in performing their solo passages and choral segments, and librettist Lemmons should be commended for adapting what could have been a sprawling and complicated story into a controlled and well-paced narrative that managed to evoke moments of humor amid the pathos.
Two moments gained the most response from the audience: A catch-the-spirit scene of Charles’ baptism in the church, undergirded with praise dancing, hand claps and a gospel chorus in one of set designer Allen Moyer’s awe-inspiring sets, clearly invigorated the audience with a few moments of joy. And in Act III, an extended demonstration of elaborate fraternity stepping – with the only musical accompaniment from the steppers themselves – drew a thunderous response for its ingenuity.
The production itself is gorgeous, with incredible mobile sets and lighting, including projected backgrounds, that easily transport us to a small home in rural Louisiana, to a local bar, a sanctified church, and a trio of emotionally fraught bedrooms. The Act II opener was especially moving, as a phalanx of male dancers (choreographed by co-director Camille A. Brown) portrayed the demons living inside teenaged Charles’ head to a haunting musical interlude.
In the end Charles is faced with a fork in the road, reminding us of the wrenching choices we make in life in response to the struggles each of us face. And while some critics may voice concerns about yet another tale of Black trauma being exploited for public consumption, there remain the facts that opera’s storytelling has long thrived on tales of suffering, heartbreak, betrayal, revenge, and death.
For example: “Tosca“ kills a police chief to save herself from rape and save her revolutionary lover, only for them both to be betrayed and killed. “Carmen” plays too fast and loose with her soldier lover, only to be murdered by him. Brunnhilde (“Die Valkyrie”) defies her father Wotan, who banishes her, strips away her supernatural powers, and chains her to a rock for any mortal man to conquer. Santuzza is shunned by the entire village when she is seduced and abandoned by Turiddu, so she retaliates in a way that leaves him murdered (“Cavalleria Rusticana”). Don Giovanni, a notorious and unrepentant seducer (essentially an 18th century serial rapist), kills the father of one of his victims, and the father’s vengeful ghost returns to drag him to hell. In the more contemporary rock opera, after witnessing a murder, catatonic “Tommy“ is tortured and abused by relatives and keepers until he is finally freed by smashing his mirror “reflection. None of this is particularly cheerful stuff. But it is cathartic.
The story of Charles M. Blow’s deliverance from the ongoing shame and rage of childhood trauma is highly relatable for many. As a distinctly American opera that reflects the African American experience, “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” is as beautiful, searing, and cathartic as they come.