When Terence Blanchard first spoke to a journalist about the plans for his Fire Shut Up in My Bones to be produced at the Metropolitan Opera, he did not know that it would become the first opera by a Black composer to be performed by the company in its august 139-year history. “It’s overwhelming, and it’s a huge honor,” he acknowledges, remembering how humbled and astounded he was by the revelation. “But I know I’m not the first African American qualified to be in this position. I want the people whose shoulders I’m standing on to be honored by what we put on the stage. It’s because of them that I’m here doing this.”
Indeed, the opening of Blanchard’s opera to kick off the 2021–22 season is historic in several ways. Performers and audience members alike are coming together after 18 months during which live opera was not possible due to the dangers of the pandemic—the longest closure in Met history. The premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones also marks the company’s first staging with a Black female director: Camille A. Brown, who is both the production’s choreographer and one of its co-directors, in partnership with James Robinson. And filmmaker Kasi Lemmons becomes the first African American librettist to have her work performed by the Met.
As Blanchard points out, his work is part of a much longer trajectory of operas by Black composers—and operatic contributions by Black librettists, singers, and other collaborating artists. From Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and Sissieretta Jones, two of the best-known Black opera singers of the 19th century, to composers Harry Lawrence Freeman, Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, and many others, Black artists were making important contributions to the opera world long before Marian Anderson’s historic debut at the Met on January 7, 1955. But Anderson’s performance as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera became a symbol of the desegregation of opera as houses in the United States and Europe began to let Black singers onto their stages. Then, in 1986, Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (coming to the Met in fall 2023) ushered in a new generation of Black opera composers, to which Blanchard belongs. Davis’s many operas include Amistad (1997) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Central Park Five (2019). Recent years have brought the premieres of many more important operas by Black composers, including Nkeiru Okoye’s Harriet Tubman (2014), George Lewis’s Afterword (2015), and Daniel Bernard Roumain’s We Shall Not Be Moved (2017).
While Blanchard is no stranger to opera, he is better known as a celebrated jazz trumpeter and film score composer, winning Grammy Awards for his jazz recordings and collaborating frequently with film director Spike Lee—as a trumpet player in Lee’s early movies and as the film score composer for many others. (He was nominated for an Academy Award last year for his score to Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.) He has also worked with several other film directors over the years and created the music for two recent films that have trenchantly documented important Black historical figures and experiences: One Night in Miami … (2020) and Harriet (2019), the latter a collaboration with Lemmons, who directed the award-winning movie. “With Harriet, there was no other composer I could imagine,” Lemmons says. “I wanted a big American sound and a lush, full, heroic score.” But their partnership goes back even further, beginning with Lemmons’s first film, Eve’s Bayou (1997), and continuing with several of her other movies. Bringing her experience as an actress, screenwriter, film director, and opera lover to her work on Fire, Lemmons’s libretto—her first—breathes a penetrating drama into this nuanced story. Here, as in all of her films, Lemmons shows her mastery at weaving together sophisticated community scenes and intimate hidden stories.
Fire is Blanchard’s second opera, and the second commissioned from him by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where Robinson is Artistic Director. His first, Champion (2013), which Blanchard calls an “opera in jazz,” was about the boxer Emile Griffith (1938–2013), who was haunted by both his bisexuality and his brutal knockout of Benny Paret in 1962, which put Paret in a coma and led to his death ten days later. “Champion was such a success that on opening night we immediately asked Terence to write another opera for us,” Robinson says. “It took a while to land on a subject that really inspired Terence, but then one day, his wife and I both read an article in The New York Times by Charles Blow that previewed his forthcoming memoir. We thought Charles’s story would make a wonderful opera, and Terence immediately responded to the idea.” Fire Shut Up in My Bones had its world premiere in St. Louis in 2019, to great acclaim. The piece has been revised and expanded for its Met premiere, with changes and additions to refine and enhance the narrative. The production has also expanded, with a larger ensemble, more elaborate sets, and new costumes by Tony Award–winner Paul Tazewell.
When first approached about adapting his memoir for the operatic stage, Blow—a well-known Times columnist and media commentator—says he “didn’t know what to make of it. But Terence and I met for lunch and just talked. I knew his work. We’re both from Louisiana and the whole thing. My thought was, as long as it ends properly, go for it.” The opera condenses the book and embraces the texture and rhythms of young Charles’s life growing up in the small town of Gibsland, Louisiana—the love of his mother and siblings, the secret of his sexual abuse at the hands of two extended family members, and his path through recognizing the trauma and finding a way forward.
A theme that links Blanchard’s two operas is their portrayal of Black men in the public eye whose bisexuality leads to bullying, shame, trauma, and inner turmoil. Both operas involve the past and the present coming together as their protagonists age and use different singers to represent the boy and the mature man.
“The role of Charles is so intense, so raw. It just grabs you immediately,” says baritone Will Liverman, who headlines the production. “It’s the journey of finding a way to stand, two feet planted on the ground, and say, ‘This is who I am.’ A way of living with that truth and not being afraid to display it.”
In working out how best to portray Charles’s complicated inner life in her libretto, Lemmons took inspiration from a conversation with Robinson, who she says opened her mind to the freedom and possibilities available in opera. “One of the things he said that really sank in was that, in opera, anything can sing,” she remembers. “I really embraced that. So first I thought that the trees could sing, and then I took that a step further and thought, well maybe his loneliness can sing.” In the end, one of the two principal female roles (sung by soprano Angel Blue) encompasses three characters: Greta, a love interest of Charles’s, and the forces of Destiny and Loneliness. The other primary female role is Charles’s mother, Billie, portrayed by soprano Latonia Moore.
Another important part of Charles’s journey takes place during his time at Grambling State, a historically Black university, where he joins Kappa Alpha Psi, one of the “Divine Nine” Black fraternities and sororities. Kappas are especially known for their step shows (especially the “Kappa Kane” and “cane stepping”). Given the college scenes in Act III, co-director Brown (who also choreographed the Met’s 2019 production of Porgy and Bess) knew that she wanted to include a step dance. “I thought it was especially important here,” she says of her expanded choreography for the Met production. “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 onstage.”
When Blanchard was growing up in New Orleans, his father—a singer who loved classical music—wanted his son to be involved with opera. “He was an amateur baritone, and he really wanted to be an opera singer,” Blanchard says. “When he was a younger kid in the 1930s and 1940s, he wasn’t given opportunities to do that.” So when Robinson asked Blanchard to write his first opera, the composer said, “I could see my dad up in heaven going, ‘I told you. I told you!’” After a conversation about bringing Fire to the Met, Blanchard says he was in tears, thinking about his dad. “I kept thinking about how this is really the life he wanted.”
Blow is similarly awed by the notion of his story coming to the Met. “I still feel like a little boy from a nowhere place in the world, who was very worried that this place that I was writing about is so small and so insignificant in the grand scheme of things that no one would actually care about it. And so to have the Met say this story is grand enough to grace their stage, it’s just an awesome thing that signifies in a lot of ways that there are no small, insignificant stories in life. Life itself is not small and insignificant, and every life has a story in it.”
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is an opera that encompasses multitudes. With Blanchard’s style of bringing jazz, gospel, and blues together, it creates a dynamic but lyrical operatic world that both propels the drama and allows it to bloom. The story has painful and tender moments, spanning the last third of the 20th century and into the present day, a period during which the United States has witnessed rapid yet uneven changes in attitude about manhood, sexuality, and their intersections with race. Brown sums up the nature and importance of the story by describing it as “a Black experience. And people need to see as many Black experiences as possible.”
Yet power and violence around sexual encounters are, tragically, everyone’s experiences in some way, whether through bullying, harassment, and assault directly, or as a bystander, friend, or loved one witnessing the damage and the struggle for healing. “It’s a very human, very relatable piece,” Robinson says. “There’s a lot of societal pressure that Charles deals with, and even if someone hasn’t been the victim of abuse, they can understand what it’s like to be different, to be an outsider, and all the trials that go along with that.”
Blanchard also sees a larger message within the particular contours of Blow’s memoir. “Anybody who comes to see this will under. Stand what Charles persevered through, and we know he’s still working and he’s still productive,” he says. “The story’s not finished—this is just one chapter.” The powerful new stories of contemporary Black operas bring together individual private experiences that communicate the shared humanity in all of us, and provide a charge for the future of opera in general. Fire’s premiere at the Met “is some. Thing that can help propel some other little kids forward into wanting to become composers,” Blanchard says. “That’s my hope. That’s my dream. I may be the first Black composer here, but I definitely don’t want to be the last, that’s for sure.”
Naomi André is a professor at the University of Michigan and the author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement.