The Metropolitan Opera in New York opened its 2021-2022 season with a production by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard. "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is an interpretation of the memoir written by "Sunday Morning" contributor Charles Blow, in which he describes his anguish growing up in small-town Louisiana in the 1970s and '80s.
Will Liverman sings "Peculiar Grace," from Act II of "Fire Shut Up in My Bones":
New Yorker magazine writer Hua Hsu said, "The audience was just lavishing the performers with applause after the step performance. It was, like, five minutes of continuous ovation."
"I know those guys are getting a cramp, man, holding that position for five minutes!" laughed Blanchard. "What a moment. What a moment for people to see themselves. And they've never seen that on the stage at the Met."
"What drew you to Charles Blow's story?"
"It was the notion of being isolated in your own community."
Blanchard, who began playing the trumpet when he was nine, related to the feeling of having a kind of dual existence: "Out in the street, hanging with your friends, and then being that kid who has to break away from that and walk to the bus stop with his horn in his hand on a Saturday. You know, it wasn't a cool thing to do in my neighborhood."
"You translate some of the feelings into music?" asked Hsu.
"You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable," Blanchard replied. "While I was working on it, man, there were many moments in my solitude where I was just in tears. 'There once was a boy of peculiar grace.' That line gets me every time."
Terence Oliver Blanchard was raised in New Orleans, in a home that was filled with opera.
Hsu asked, "Your father was a huge opera fan; what did opera represent to him?"
"Sophistication, highest level of art. Whenever there was a 'Masterpiece' performance on PBS, he'd say, 'Hey, come here, come here. Listen. Listen. See, now, that's music. That's music.'"
Blanchard's passion is jazz. Today, he's a six-time Grammy-winner, and also a two-time Oscar nominated film composer.
Terence Blanchard performs "Levees," from his Grammy-winning album, "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)":
He's been working on movie soundtracks since the late '80s, first as a trumpeter, on films like "Do the Right Thing," which was when he began working with director Spike Lee. He recalled: "I was just hired as a session player, and I sat down at the piano and started playing. Spike walked by and heard it. He goes, 'Man, what's that?' I said, 'Oh, just something I'm working on.' And then he goes, 'Can I use that?'"
Blanchard has composed the scores for 15 of Lee's movies.
Hsu asked, "When did you feel like you were a composer?"
"When we did 'Malcolm X,' it was the first time that I felt like I was connected emotionally to something that I was writing for film. That film, I knew, had to be powerful."
A ledger book from the early 1900s contains the Met's internal notations about opera submissions. "Amateurish." "Uninteresting." "Not suitable for the Metropolitan."
Hsu said, "It's funny that they take themselves so seriously that he writes out 'Metropolitan' each time. There's not that much space."
In its 138 years, America's leading opera house and largest performing arts institution had never staged an opera by a Black composer.
Blanchard said, "The arts are supposed to be things that bring us together, that throw away all of those notions of bigotry and intolerance, right? So, it breaks my heart to think that William Grant Still approached the Met, and was turned away."
Still, known as the "dean of African American composers," submitted three operas to the Met over a 20-year span.
Hsu asked, "In the '20s and '30s, what kind of opportunities existed for William Grant Still?"
"None," Blanchard replied. "Everything was measured by what happened here at the Met. This is the place that makes the statement for the rest of the world."
"These are all people whose works didn't make it at that stage – Mrs. Horatio Parker, Mrs. Francis Thurber, Gertrude Auld Thomas, William Grant Still, women, African Americans, people [who] wanted to perform here. They saw this as the pinnacle, and the commentaries are so dismissive. Do you think there's some racial component to this rejection?"
"You think there's racial component to this? Listen, man, there's misogyny all over this, too, with all of these women that were rejected, right?"
But this time, it was the Met that reached out to Blanchard: "Called me up and said, 'We wanna put your opera on at the Met.' I'm like, did this really just happen? All of a sudden, boom, and it blows up and takes off like a runaway freight train."
Performances of "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" quickly sold out. "And that should be a big lesson to arts organizations around the country," Blanchard said. "It's time. It's time for us to move on, you know? Nobody loves the classics more than me. Listen, I'm a jazz musician who loves Bird, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk. But I'm not trying to be them. I'm trying to find the sound for my generation."
In reviews, the production has been praised as being unlike any other opera. For Terence Blanchard, it was an opportunity to take risks.
Hsu said, "I hadn't been to the opera since, you know, a third-grade field trip. And there were times when my ears would catch up to what was going on. I'm like, 'Wait, did they just sing a profanity?'"
"Yes! Exactly. Exactly," Blanchard laughed. "It's not like we're trying to be profane for the sake of being profane. It just kind of ramped the energy up."
"Now that you've caught the opera bug, are you working on another one?"
"Well, that's the thing. The night of the gala, man, you know, 'On behalf of the Met, we'd like to commission Terence to write another opera for us.' I was like, 'Whoa, okay. I just wanna get a nap in-between if I could!'"
For more info:
- "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" (an opera by Terence Blanchard, libretto by Kasi Lemmons), at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City (archive page)
- "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (March 24,2022-April 8, 2022)
- "Absence" by Terence Blanchard, featuring the E Collective and the Turtle Island Quartet (Blue Note)
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Emanuele Secci.
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