History is made tonight at New York Metropolitan opera: For the first time in 138 years, the eminent company will present an opera by a black composer. After 18 months of performances canceled in the event of a pandemic, the country’s first opera house will open its new season with Fire shut up in my bones composed by Terence blanchard.
As a trumpeter, Blanchard has performed with jazz legends like Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey. He was nominated for two Oscars for his film scores and won five Grammys for his jazz records. But during a recent Metropolitan Opera rehearsal for Fire shut up in my bones Blanchard was humbled by the scale of the production.
“I never thought I would be in a situation like this, walking into a room and there are about 40 singers singing something that I wrote, and they rehearse it,” he said. declared. “And then in the next room, there are 16 dancers choreographing to a piece of music that I wrote. And then in the other room, the lead singers block – I’m still waiting for me. wake.”
Blanchard is a jazz composer, but he says Fire shut up in my bones is not a jazz opera. Rather, he calls it “an opera in jazz”. What he intends to do, he explained, is similar to what Stravinsky did in bringing folk music into the classical realm. “I’m trying to take the American folklore that I know, that I have known, which is jazz,” he explained, “and bring it into the world of opera, but not fully using the entire piece to make a statement on jazz. “
There is a jazz quartet built into the Met Orchestra for opera, but much of the music is more like Blanchard’s work in Hollywood, where he wrote music for over 40 films.
Still, Blanchard says opera presents a unique challenge. “The opera voice is so unique, each voice. It’s not like writing for an orchestra or writing for a band. When you write for a quintet, you say to yourself, ‘Okay, I know what it’s doing. the tenor, I know what the trumpet does, the bass. You got it. This, no: one baritone is so different from the next baritone, one tenor is different from another. So you always have to tweak things to the singers you work with.
Fire shut up in my bones is based on the memoir of the same title by Charles M. Blow. He’s about a black boy who grows up in rural Louisiana, where he rises above poverty, violence and sexual abuse to become a successful writer.
The show was first presented two years ago by the Opera Theater of Saint-Louis. For the Met’s production, new stages were added, along with a choir and troupe of dancers. Terence Blanchard says opera, with its all-black cast and predominantly black creative team, is about much more than its music.
“It’s an interesting thing because of what it means for society,” he says. “It’s not just about me as a songwriter. These people understand that this production is going to make a statement about our community and how our community has been overlooked in the opera world. not a soul in this production that doesn’t understand this. “
Baritone Does Liverman stars as Charles. “It’s a collective thing and we all want to do well. And tell this story. And just to show some real authentic blackness on stage – black pain, black joy – this piece has it all. It’s such an honor and privilege to be able to sing this role. “
Much of the opera libretto revolves around Charles’ struggle to come to terms with his bisexuality; he is haunted by his attraction to men. The second act opens with a ballet featuring a dozen ghostly dancers kissing in same-sex hugs.
Choreographer Camille A. Brown co-directed the show. She is the first black woman to conduct an opera at the Met. “I tried to think about what my point of entry into the job was,” she says. “And I started to think about a lot of the struggles that some of my dearest friends who are black gay men went through, and what it was like for them to grow up, to find their sexuality and to be comfortable in their sexuality. “
Blow, the real subject of Fire shut up in my bones, ” now works as a writer and opinion columnist for The New York Times. Speaking from his home in Atlanta, Blow said there are two ways to look at the importance of the Met’s production. “I think you have to really applaud Terence for being the first one,” he said. “And then you have to simultaneously say, why is that? Is there a shortage of talent? Or a dearth of opportunity and acceptance?”
The new season of the Metropolitan Opera includes works by Verdi, Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky and Puccini. Blanchard says how his work measures up has yet to be answered.
“That’s a funny question,” he said, “because it’s funny to hear you name all those names: Verdi, all those guys, then you say Blanchard… wait a minute, that’s Who this guy? I really don’t know because I feel like, like Charles, that my story has not yet been told. I just take this moment for what it brings to my life, because I never saw it coming. Never. Never in a million years could I have seen this coming. “
Blanchard says he doesn’t care why it took the Metropolitan Opera so long to present the work of a black composer. He says the key question is: what happens next?
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