Jazz Notes: Terence Blanchard Storm The Met
After 138 years of non-inclusion, the Metropolitan Opera has finally lifted the curtain of its 2021-2022 season with “Fire Shut Up in my Bones”, their first opera composed by a black composer, Terence Blanchard. The opera is based on a 2014 memoir by New York Times opinion columnist Charles M. Blow, an intense emotional roller coaster of a young black boy who comes of age in rural northern Louisiana, facing from sexual assault, to inner rage, confusion and self-discovery. . The opera benefits from an all-black cast with a libretto by writer, filmmaker / director and actor Kasi Lemmons and directed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
“I would give language to all the others who have suffered like me. I would show them what it was like to survive the pain, betrayal and isolation and come out to the other side, ”Blow explained in her NYT column about her memoir.
Blanchard’s ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ opened as the country continues to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the Met in March 2020. However, this historic cultural moment for blacks and the Met would not be stopped by any pandemic. After the opening night, the hall remains full (3,800 seats) and the blacks support this opera with vigorous enthusiasm.
Blanchard thanks Peter Geib, Managing Director of The Met, for accepting the challenge to branch out further with opera performances on stage. The five-time Grammy Award winner didn’t want to be just a token working in a vacuum. Earlier this year, the Met recruited composers Valerie Coleman, Jessie Montgomery and Joel Thompson for its commission program. Geib admitted to the brutal murder of George Floyd by police followed by international protest marches, and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement prompted the institution to respond. Blanchard agrees that many people see Floyd’s murder as the catalyst that pushed institutions like the Met toward diversity. It also recognizes that the fight for equality and inclusion started long before. The early execution of George Stinney, Jr., the murder of Emmitt Till, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, yes, the brush of the civil rights struggle has a very broad and continuous stroke. The Met gently touched the surface of inclusion in 1955 when contralto Marian Anderson became the first African American to perform in opera.
“I’m honored, but I’m not the first qualified person to be here,” said Blanchard. “Scott Joplin, Hale Smith and William Grant Still were very accomplished in their creative endeavors as composers and they all deserved their music to be performed here. They paved the way for me.
The difference in writing a film score (he scored 40, including 17 of Spike Lee’s films, winning Oscar nominations for “BlacKkKlansman” of 2018 as well as “Da 5 Bloods” of 2020. Quincy Jones has scored 24 films not counting TV series scores), Blanchard explains, is that “I help someone else tell their story 90% of the time. By composing an opera, I tell the story as I think it unfolded from start to finish. He is still honing his skills in voice composition. “When you write for cello, you write for cello,” he said. “But no baritone is the same; no tenor is the same. And all these voices, where do they flourish in their registers? So being able to control that and manipulate it has been a huge learning curve. Blanchard’s compositional style is based on jazz technique which includes mapping the rhythms of the text and a series of chord progressions, from which the melodies emerge.
This may be the first time that a jazz quartet and orchestra have shared the Met Pit. Even so, there is no real swing. Blanchard noted that he didn’t want it to sound like Count Basie’s band, but he effortlessly blended the mix of jazz, blues, and gospel into the larger classical pond.
Unlike most contemporary operas in French, Italian or German, this one is based in English, offering a more complete indulgence for the audience. There were definitive scenes where I felt the music tugging at my emotions. When the assault was about to take place in the bedroom with Char’es-Baby (played by triple Walter Russell III), you could feel his fear, anxiety, and utter anger at not being able to protect himself. As the journey unfolds, we meet an older Charles (played by baritone Will Liverman) while a student at Grambling State College. During a love scene, he pours out his heart and shares his intimate secret with Greta (played by Angel Blue) only to be informed that she has a boyfriend. He’s completely devastated, but Blanchard’s music brings all these emotions to life.
One of the most dynamic musical scenes takes place in Act III, the step Kappa Alpha Psi show. It’s that special night when the period of promise is over and it’s time for the new brothers to perform on stage. The Kappa are known for their dynamic steps, “Kappa Kane” and “cane walk”. As a former HBCU graduate and having attended many Greek parties, Kappa’s staged performance couldn’t have been more authentic. Camille A. Brown is both the production’s choreographer and one of its co-directors, in partnership with James Robinson. She also choreographed the 2019 Met production of Porgy and Bess which returns to the Met in late October, and knew she wanted to include a step dance. “I thought it was especially important here,” she says of her expanded choreography. “We are talking about bringing a step that comes from the rich history of the African diaspora inside the Metropolitan Opera, where at one point black people were not allowed to take the stage.” With this latest credit, she marks a new “Fire” story as the first black female director to create a mainstage production at the Met.
“I connected with a lot of things in the book,” Blanchard, also from Louisiana, said as Blow. “I felt his sense of isolation that he went through in life.” These same feelings are expressed in the songwriter’s music pulling your emotional strings like a master puppeteer, as the acting draws you into a heart-wrenching story that cuts across racial lines and all levels of society.
William Grant Still first performed in 1963 at the Opera Theater in St. Louis, Missouri. In the same opera theater 50 years later, in 2013, Blanchard’s first opera, Champion, premiered, the life of boxer Emile Griffith. “Fire Shut Up in my Bones” premiered there in 2019; and composer Anthony Davis’ opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” also premiered there and will premiere at the Met in 2023. “The Opera Theater of St. Louis is very aggressive when it comes to new works, ”Blanchard said in our phone interview.
Although his father was a part-time opera singer, composing operas was not on his list. “Going to his rehearsals every Wednesday night made a mark on my brain for sure,” the musician said.
The production will visit the Lyric Opera in Chicago in March and the Los Angeles Opera in a future season.
As the opening night wraps up, Blanchard says the butterflies are still in his stomach despite being seated in the audience. “I still feel like I can make things better, but the response from the community is great and I’m delighted.” Blanchard tries to attend the performance every night, saying “it’s not every day that I compose an opera”. I could see his smile through the phone.