Fire Shut Up in My Bones makes Met Opera history

Opera theater

The opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s season arrived on Monday, with heavily dragged meaning: Fire shut up in my bones, with music by Terence Blanchard, is the first opera by a black composer in the 138-year history of the Met.

Based on an eloquent memoir by Charles M Blow, now New York Times columnist and television presenter, Fire shut up in my bones tells the story of Blow’s sexual assault when he was seven years old, his painful acceptance of his bisexuality, and his final realization of his love and debt to his mother (the powerful soprano Latonia Moore). The boy soprano Walter Russell III sang the child Blow, the light baritone Will Liverman the adult.

Blanchard is a jazz trumpeter, ensemble conductor and sheet music composer for 60 films (most of them Spike Lee) and previous opera, Champion, seen in St Louis in 2013. He is not a modernist; his father loved opera and played recordings from the 19th century repertoire to him, and Puccini and Bohemian are his models. Like almost everyone since, however, he lacks Puccini’s knack for soaring vocal line. In the third act of Fire some of the vocal music comes close to true lyricism, but generally the music, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, musical director of the Met, is carried by the accompaniment (Howard Drossin is credited in lowercase “additional orchestrations”). The instrumental music is full of rousing ostinatos and interspersed with richer effusions. There are also haunting backstage choirs.

Top and bottom: Walter Russell III as boy Charles, Latonia Moore as Billie and Will Liverman as adult Charles © Ken Howard / Met Opera

The production expanded on the original from St Louis 2019, with additional music and choreography by Camille A Brown (from the recent Met production of Porgy and Bess), including a group of shirtless men like Blow’s fantasies and the Blow Brotherhood brothers’ long step and line dance. For the audience, it was the hit of the night, but little music was involved. (Brown co-conducts with James Robinson, artistic director of the St Louis Opera Theater.)

But overall, the evening is carried by the tortured story of Blow and the libretto by Kasi Lemmons, who does a terrific job adapting the dramatic elements of Blow’s tale. Lemmons, who is also a director, compacts the single-soprano first-person narrative depicting Destiny, Loneliness, and, at the end, Blow’s First True Lover (all three performed by fine soprano Angel Blue). Much of the surrounding material – the small Louisiana town where Blow was raised, the racial background at the time, plenty of subplots – is hijacked, however, with Blue and Blow standing as observers.

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to October 23; metopera.org. Subsequent performances planned in Chicago and Los Angeles


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