Terence Blanchard's music is the sound of Spike Lee's movies. Now it's also making history at the Metropolitan Opera.
This time last year, Terence Blanchard — the multiple Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated composer, bandleader, jazz trumpeter and longtime collaborator of Spike Lee — was a walking whirlwind of mixed emotions.
On the day I rang him in late September 2020, the COVID-19 toll hit the then-unthinkable milestone of 200,000 deaths, one of the officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor was indicted on charges of "wanton endangerment," and a new vacancy on the Supreme Court was further twisting the dynamics of American politics after the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"I stopped watching the news, dude," he told me. "I just stopped." The coronavirus had taken friends, colleagues and most recently a former teacher of his. And the daily influx of bleak headlines wasn't helping. "2020 sucks," he said on the phone from his home in New Orleans. "I can't wait to get through this."
The only good news came tucked into — why not? — more bad news.
To virtually nobody's surprise, given the trajectory of things at the time, that day the Metropolitan Opera announced the cancellation of its entire 2020-2021 season, citing soaring case numbers and more than $150 million in lost revenue. But if one could squint hard enough to make out the distant edge of this cloud, its lining was silvery. The Met's intended comeback 2021-2022 season — presuming the emergence of a vaccine and a population eager to embrace such a thing — would open on a historic note: with Blanchard's opera, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," the first production by a Black composer in the Met's 138-year history.
An adaptation of the powerful 2014 memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow — with a libretto by "Harriet" and "Eve's Bayou" writer-director Kasi Lemmons — "Fire" tells Blow's story of growing up impoverished in the rural South, a life made more difficult when an older cousin molests him at the age of 7. The show radiates outward from this flash point of trauma, skillfully combining the high spectacle and drama of opera with the wrenchingly personal experience of abuse. Its evocative exploration of grief, trauma, masculinity and sexuality are counterbalanced by buoyant celebrations of Black culture, family and healing. It's an opera primed to meet its moment — but when would that come?
"By the fall of '21, we hope to be in a position where we could just use this as a celebration of coming together more than anything," he told me last September, cautiously hopeful that small signs of progress might lead to enduring change, and wary of even his own inclinations to get "back to normal."
"It's a sea change moment. My only hope is that it lasts. I don't want it to be a moment in time where we all wake up and once we find a vaccine and everyone goes back to life normal, things go back to how they were before. I would hate that," he said. "That would make all of this feel like a huge waste of time."
More and more, the significance of "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" actually premiered on Sept. 27 for eight performances is sinking in. (Its upcoming performances are Oct. 13, 16, 19 and 23.)
"It's a bit overwhelming," he tells me from New York in late August. "Once you get into the rehearsal phase, you start to see how big this production really is. You start to see how dedicated all of the participants are. It's pretty amazing to see this entire cast take ownership of this piece. You know, it's like I originally wrote it, but it doesn't belong to me anymore. So that means a lot."
But perhaps even more than the sophisticated sets (a massive square structure that rotates through lives as a home, a church, a tavern, a country road and the depths of Blow's psyche) and the powerful potential of the Met Orchestra (into which the composer has incorporated a jazz ensemble), Blanchard is inspired by the cast of nearly 80 performers, and what each of them brings to the stage.
"The most important thing about it for me is that these singers are allowed to bring a part of their culture to the opera world that the opera world has always told them to shut off when singing in German or French or Italian," Blanchard says. "And everybody in the production is very cognizant of how William Grant Still and others should have had their music performed at the Met, and we're not taking any of that lightly. We're standing on some very strong shoulders and trying to make sure there's not a weak link in the chain of this production."
The production brings together director James Robinson and Camille Brown as co-directors. Brown, who also choreographed some of the opera's most entrancing passages, previously collaborated with Robinson when she choreographed his 2019 production of "Porgy and Bess," which returns to the Met in late October. With this latest credit she makes some additional "Fire" history as the first Black director to create a main stage production at the Met.
Baritone Will Liverman — the 2020 recipient of the Marian Anderson Vocal Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C — sings the role of Charles, first played at the St. Louis premiere by bass-baritone Davóne Tines. But the role of Charles is twofold, as the young talent Walter Russell III takes on the role of Char'es-Baby — Blow's childhood self, with whom Liverman sometime sings in unison as the narrative sweeps us through his memories.
Soprano Angel Blue takes a triple turn in her triad of roles as Destiny/Loneliness/Greta — visitations that open key parts of Charles's inner turmoil; and soprano Latonia Moore plays Blow's resilient mother Billie. Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts.
Blow, whose "The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto," was published earlier this year, echoed Blanchard, expressing a similar sense of separation from his own work as "Fire" takes new forms and traverses genres.
"I view it as a new piece of art that was inspired by what I did, not necessarily an extension of it," he says by phone. "I don't know how much pride the person who designed the Campbell's soup can could take in the art of Andy Warhol, but it's an inspiration. And you're honored to be an inspiration, but it's new. And that's very interesting — and humbling."
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