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Composer Blanchard makes history at the Met

by Michael Andor Brodeur, The Washington Post | October 3, 2021 at 1:36 a.m.
“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,” says composer Terence Blanchard of his opera, “Fire Shut up in My Bones.” It’s the first production by a Black composer in the 138-year history of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. (The Washington Post/Marvin Joseph)

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. "I can't wait to get through this," he said on the phone from his home in New Orleans.

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, the Metropolitan Opera announced that day 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 molested 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 normal life, 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."

Cue 2021.

A decorated jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer, Terence Blanchard has penned the scores for more than 40 feature films. (The Washington Post/Marvin Joseph)
A decorated jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer, Terence Blanchard has penned the scores for more than 40 feature films. (The Washington Post/Marvin Joseph)

MAKING READY

For a month at the time of this writing, Blanchard has been lost in rehearsals, preparations and the crimson embrace of the Metropolitan Opera House — its undulating lobby, those "you're actually here" chandeliers, its soaring proscenium. And more and more, the significance of "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" (which actually premiered Sept. 27 for eight performances) is sinking in.

"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, 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.

(In 2022, Brown will make her directorial debut on Broadway as director and choreographer for a revival of Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.")

Baritone Will Liverman — the 2020 recipient of the Marian Anderson Vocal Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington — sings the role of Charles, first played at the St. Louis premiere by bass-baritone Davone 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' inner turmoil; and soprano Latonia Moore plays Blow's resilient mother, Billie. Met music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin will conduct.

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. "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."

THE SOUNDTRACK OF A LIFE

Blow has a close relationship to music, if not opera. He had never been to one before Blanchard and Robinson approached him about "Fire" — Blanchard learned of the book from his wife and grew quickly fascinated with its operatic potential after reading it.

Part of the appeal of the story to Blanchard was that its subject was a living, breathing person, and Lemmons' lithe handling of heavy material — he describes her libretto as "rhythmic and romantic and poignant and powerful" — captures this vitality in spare poetry.

At a recent dress rehearsal, the music scaled back to a minimal ensemble and the singers tracing their way through the work, the words hang in the air and flash on the backs of the seats. It's as though the heavy burden of pain related by the memoir has been liberated into poetry, the melodies of Blow's prose finding their way into Blanchard's orchestra through some kind of magic.

While writing the memoir, Blow borrowed a trick from James Baldwin, who finished his first novel in Switzerland listening to a Bessie Smith record he brought from home that helped to unlock his earliest memories. In the back of Blow's mind, the book already had a soundtrack of pop hits in from the background of his youth in Gibsland, La.

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones" had its world premiere in 2019 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and is the second of Blanchard's operatic works. The first, 2013's "Champion," a co-commission from OTSL and Jazz St. Louis with a libretto by the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning actor and playwright Michael Cristofer, told the life story of the welterweight boxer Emile Griffith. (Washington National Opera staged its own production at the Kennedy Center in 2017.)

Blow watched and was astonished by the sweeping transformation of his story into a visual, physical and musical experience. He says Lemmons told him: "In opera, everything can sing."

"It was beautiful and fascinating," he says. "If I had to do my life in music, what would it sound like? This is what it sounds like. It was incredible to witness."

Blanchard, too, was born and raised in Louisiana, and Blow could hear it in his music for Lee's films. "He doesn't know intellectually where I'm from, he knows where I'm from. And he understands all the subtleties and musicality of the region — not only jazz, but hill country blues and folk, spiritual music, chanting from the fraternal groups, Cajun and zydeco. He understands how to make it all cohesive. Because, to us, it is all just music."

Immediately following the premiere (Blanchard would not allow Blow to attend rehearsals), the composer approached the author. "I walked over to him nervously and asked, 'Are we OK?'" Blanchard recalls. "And he said, 'Yeah. Watching that reminded me that I'm not that person anymore.'"

"It's funny. I keep saying 'the opera world' like it's a distant thing," Blanchard said. "I have to get used to saying 'we,' because I've been a part of it for a number of years now. It's taken a minute to get used to it."

Actors Latonia Moore and Will Liverman go through a final rehearsal of Terence Blanchard’s opera, “Fire Shut up in My Bones,” Sept. 17 at the Metropolitan Opera House. (The Washington Post/Marvin Joseph)
Actors Latonia Moore and Will Liverman go through a final rehearsal of Terence Blanchard’s opera, “Fire Shut up in My Bones,” Sept. 17 at the Metropolitan Opera House. (The Washington Post/Marvin Joseph)

NO STRANGER TO OPERA

While the "opera world" may feel distant, opera has always been close to Blanchard's heart, and ears. His father, Oliver Joseph Blanchard, was an amateur baritone with a penchant for the great Romantic operas and RCA Victor albums (that were not to be touched by anybody but him), and for sitting at the house piano in New Orleans to sing them — much to the chagrin of young Terence.

"When he would come home sometimes, he'd be in the mood to listen to opera; he'd put that stuff on, man, and you'd just hear doors slamming in the house, people trying to find some peace and quiet."

The only child, Blanchard eventually, perhaps unwittingly, overcame his embarrassment, watching PBS broadcasts with his father, absorbing melodies and structures and the way, say, Puccini turned music and narrative into one texture.

When he started playing piano at age 5 and moved on to trumpet by age 8 (meeting a young Branford Marsalis at summer camp and launching a decades-spanning collaborative relationship), he felt his childhood path diverging from his friends on the football field to his instructors in the rehearsal room. He wasn't just laying his musical groundwork for an ascendant career with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and the Jazz Messengers, he was also laying the emotional foundation that would make Blow's story resonate decades later.

"I don't know what it's like to be molested by a family member," Blanchard says. "But I do know what the isolation of being different is like. And here's the thing about it: It's not just being different, it's having the fortitude not to let the norm change you. And that's what makes Charles' story so powerful. How many people just succumb to what the norms are just because they want to fit in?"

Now 59, Blanchard splits his time between New Orleans and Los Angeles, where he holds the Kenny Burrell Chair in Jazz Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles' Herb Alpert School of Music. A decorated jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer, he has penned the scores for more than 40 feature films — including 17 of Lee's films, earning Oscar nominations for 2018's "BlacKkKlansman" as well as 2020's "Da 5 Bloods." He has also scored five Grammys for his own recordings.

After "Champion" was performed in New Orleans (in 2018), the esteemed bass-baritone Arthur Woodley, who sang the role of Old Emile in the production, embraced Blanchard and assured him that the show would have made his father proud. Just as emotional were the words of a total stranger.

"There was a guy who came," Blanchard says, "an African American man, an older man in his 70s, and he told me, 'Man, if this is opera, I would come.' I think when we start to see that there are other stories to be told out there from other points of view, we can really broaden the audience for opera."

To this end, the Met announced in September that it would augment its 3,800 seats by not only continuing its newish tradition of presenting a live opening-night simulcast on multiple screens in Times Square — where 2,000 first-come, first-served seats will be available — but adding another simulcast at Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park for an additional 1,700 viewers. Blanchard and Lemmons will lead an in-person discussion there before the performance.

"I hope that what 'Fire' does is open up the minds of not only the audiences but the presenters as well," he says, "that there are a number of stories out there to be told."

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones" opened Sept. 27 and continues Monday, Oct. 8, 13, 16, 19 and 23 at the Metropolitan Opera, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York City. Purchase tickets at metopera.org.

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