Grace Jordan, arts & living editor
For the last 138 years, the Metropolitan Opera has entertained thousands with operas like “La Bohéme,” “Aida” and “Carmen.” As time goes on the list of operas performed at the Metropolitan Opera grows. However, until now, the Metropolitan Opera has never presented a piece composed by a person of color. Now, Terence Blanchard, a Black composer known by some for his relationship with Spike Lee, will present “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” according to the Metropolitan Opera.
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is adapted from Charles M. Blow’s memoir, holding the same name. According to National Public Radio, the opera focuses on Blow’s life as an adolescent, starting with him age seven and ending with him as a 20-year-old man. The opera is not for the light-hearted, as it includes themes of sexual and physical violence.
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is a hardscrabble coming-of-age story with a trauma narrative, a search for self-identity and a reckoning with the limits and possibilities of Black masculinity,” wrote NPR.
Terence Blanchard, the man who composed the opera, grew up in Louisiana with a father who loved opera and would often come home to his father playing the piano. Blanchard notes how performing at the Metropolitan Opera elicited these memories and played a role in the making of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” according to the New York Times.
“I came home and my dad would be sitting at the piano, playing the tenor part and singing the baritone part,” Blanchard said in a New York Times interview. “I was like, this dude is nuts. And then all of a sudden this opportunity comes and all that music starts popping back in my head.”
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is not just classical opera, but has very prominent notes of jazz, according to the New York Times. Blanchard holds the opinion that opera and jazz don’t have to be separated. According to the New York Times, most of the singers in the production felt like they couldn’t let jazz influence their performance, but he believed the opposite.
“A lot of them, like my dad, grew up singing in the church,” Blanchard said. And when it comes time to do [opera], they have to turn that off. And one of the things that I’ve been telling all of them is, no, I want you to bring that back to this.”
Blanchard believes that this opera has come at the perfect time, according to Time magazine. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder the world is awakening to the inequality and is demanding change, according to Blanchard.
“Something had to change and I’m kind of like the guy who—you hate to use these words, but it was perfect timing for me,” Blanchard said. “I have enough skill in my writing where the show won’t be a flop. And they [the Metropolitan Opera] can make their statement. But this can’t just be a statement. It has to be the sea change.”
Seeing an African American composer at the Metropolitan Opera has far reaching implications, according to Trejohn Skinner. Skinner is a junior music business major participating in the Opera and Musical Theater Workshop. According to Skinner, having an African American compose a piece performed on the Metropolitan stage will pave the way for other African American composers to shine.
“For me, it’s pretty cool to see a person the same race as me have an opera out, especially on the Metropolitan Opera,” Skinner said. “Most of the time when you think of opera its from a white composer, but to see that it’s an African American composer its like wow we’re changing history slowly. I think it will give an opportunity for other composers to really put their work out there, especially African American composers.”
The opening night of the opera was met with high praise. According to The Wall Street Journal, the audience remained engaged with the story and did not hold back on their applause, both during the performance and after.
“The standing ovation that erupted at the end of Terence Blanchard’s ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ was nearly earsplitting,” wrote the Wall Street Journal. “A demonstration of appreciation for the Met’s first-ever opera by a Black composer.”
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” stars Will Liverman, Angel Blue, Latonia Moore and Walter Russell III. The opera debuted at the beginning of Oct. and will be performed throughout the month.