This week, the vaunted Metropolitan Opera in New York City will open for the 2021-2022 season after being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And for the first time in its history, a production with a Black composer will make its debut. That composer? None other than the exceptional trumpeter and the man behind the stirring scores for Spike Lee’s movies, Terence Blanchard.
Fire Shut Up In My Bones, the operatic work based on the memoir by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow about his childhood in Louisiana, will have Blanchard as its composer and features a libretto by writer, actress, and director Kasi Lemmons. The Met had originally made the commitment to bring the production to New York after its 2019 premiere at St. Louis’ Opera Theater but initially slated it to open in 2023 during a period where more contemporary works are presented.
Why the change? According to general manager Peter Gelb, the pandemic, and the opportunity to make a significant change after the global focus on Black lives in the wake of protests against racism and police brutality prompted the decision to bring Fire up in the schedule to open the season. “Without doubt, the Black Lives Matter movement had a big impact, at a time when theaters and opera companies were being looked at under a microscope in terms of their sense of social responsibility,” Gelb said in an interview with the New York Times. “It felt like it was important for the Met to respond.” He also mentioned that he had spoken with Wynton Marsalis about doing a production there as early as 2006, but it never came to fruition.
For Blanchard, whose father was an amateur singer in New Orleans, being tapped to be the composer is a high honor. But it’s also one he understands in perspective, given the history of other Black composers and productions that the Met overlooked in the past. “It’s a phenomenal honor, and it’s an overwhelming thing. But it’s also bittersweet. I’m honored, but I’m not the first qualified person to be here, that’s for sure.”
Fire’s co-director James Robinson sincerely felt that Blanchard’s composing prowess would be perfect for this production as the two had previously worked on Champion, a production put on by the Opera Theater in 2013 that told the story of Emile Griffith, the closeted middleweight boxing champion.
Blanchard appreciated the accolades that Champion received, but did consider the roughness of the process, being that it was the first time he had ever composed with vocals in mind. “When you write for cello, you write for cello,” he said. “But no baritone is the same; no tenor is the same. And all those voices, where do they bloom in their registers? So being able to control that and manipulate it, that’s been a huge learning curve.”
Based on the reception from rehearsals, Fire is being regarded as a mature work from its first performances in St. Louis that evokes the best of Blanchard’s jazz stylings and interprets Blow’s writing into striking dance sequences, including a frenzied fraternity hazing scene done through stepping thanks to co-directors Camille A. Brown’s choreography. Coincidentally, Brown and Robinson are the first Black main stage directors in the Met’s history.
The historic production will debut on Monday, September 27th, with another twist that will appeal to the public. In addition to its premiere at the 3,600-seat Met, Fire will be shown live simultaneously on screens in Times Square and Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, as was first reported by Playbill Magazine. Despite the glaring length of time it took the Metropolitan Opera to have a Black composition debut on its stage, there seems to be a surging consensus that Fire will be well received and a hope that this is only the beginning.
“The key to all this for me is, I don’t want to be the token,” Blanchard remarked. “I want to be the turnkey.”