“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” heralds a new era for the Met

Opera song

In the final act of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which opened the Metropolitan Opera’s new season on September 27, a college fraternity performs a percussive, vivacious dance (pictured). Terence Blanchard, the composer, said some of the early collaborators “didn’t understand the meaning” of the dance and suggested cutting the stage. But when it was performed in New York, audiences recognized its power and responded with loud cries of joy to this common African-American tradition. The piece represents a welcome step towards more inclusivity in opera: “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is the first work by a black composer presented at the Met since its opening in 1883.

This is the second opera by Mr. Blanchard, a Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter, conductor and composer who has written moody and sadly lyrical soundtracks for many Spike Lee films. The elegant libretto was written by Kasi Lemmons, actress and filmmaker, and adapted from Charles Blow’s memoir of the same name published in 2014. Mr. Blow, a journalist, recounted his youth in an assaulted isolated town in rural Louisiana by a cousin and an uncle, and a desire for revenge in adulthood. With a title taken from the Book of Jeremiah, the story is a lamentation over racism, violence and the abuse of power.

These are themes that the opera world has strived to address both within its own ranks and on stage in recent years. The Met originally planned “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” for fall 2023, but moved it forward after the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that took place in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. In addition to the opening night simulcast that has aired in Times Square since 2006, there was a broadcast at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem.

Mr. Blanchard often explores social justice in his work. His first opera, “Champion” (which premiered at the avant-garde St Louis Opera Theater in 2013), told the story of locked up bisexual boxer Emile Griffith. “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” (which also premiered at the Opera Theater in 2019) is musically and dramatically a much stronger work, directed at the Met by Camille Brown, the first black artist to direct and choreograph a home stage production and James Robinson. Mr. Blanchard, who was born in New Orleans, attributed the melodic qualities of his music to his childhood exposure to opera by his father, an amateur baritone. Although this “opera in jazz”, as Mr. Blanchard described his work, has some unconventional elements, it is a traditional grand opera, with passionate arias and vibrant choral scenes.

On stage, the character of Charles is portrayed both as an adult (sung here by superb baritone Will Liverman) and as a seven-year-old (Walter Russell III). The cast, especially Latonia Moore in a powerful performance as Billie, Charles’s hard-working mother, sang beautifully. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director of the Met, led a performance that showcased the intricacies of Mr. Blanchard’s harmonically rich score, with its echoes of gospel, folk and blues. There is a jazz quartet built into the orchestra.

Mr. Blanchard recently told the New York Times that it does not want to be a “token”, but rather aims to be “a turnkey”. He is aware of gifted predecessors grossly rejected by the Met, such as William Grant Still, a composer of nearly 200 works and the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra. The Met is also aware of this story: it will be featuring works by other black composers in the coming seasons, including “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” by Anthony Davis.

The arc of Mr. Blow’s memoir leans toward hope and redemption. It was also an upbeat night at the Met, which, with 3,800 seats, is the world’s largest opera house. It has lasted a difficult 18 months for the institution, which closed in March 2020 due to covid, canceled its 2020-21 season, lost some $ 150 million in revenue and barely resolved labor disputes. in time for the opening night. There is a worrying number of unsold tickets for upcoming operas this season. But during the opening performance of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” at least a diverse and glamorous audience seemed elated to be a part of an event that heralded a new era.

“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” continues at the Metropolitan Opera in New York until October 23


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