When the opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones premieres at Metropolitan Opera House on Sept. 27, the performance will make history. It will be the first-ever opera composed by a Black musician to be performed at the historic and world-renowned New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in its 138-year history.
Mike Silverman of the Associated Press reported that Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which has a score by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, is based on New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s critically acclaimed memoir of the same name.
“In his book, Blow describes growing up in poverty as a shy, sensitive child in rural Louisiana with four macho older brothers, a philandering drunk for a father and a warm-hearted, hard-working mother who carried a gun in her purse,” Silverman wrote.
In an interview with the AP, the New Orleans-born Blanchard said his familiarity with Blow’s story attracted him to the material and led him to write the music for the opera.
“What drew me to this story was the notion of being isolated and different in your own community,” Blanchard told Silverman. “I knew a lot about that growing up, wanting to be a musician, and walking to the bus stop on the weekends, carrying my horn and wearing glasses while the other boys were playing football in the street. That was not a popular look.”
To write the text for the opera, which pairs with Blanchard’s jazz-infused score, the composer said he turned to his friend and frequent collaborator, filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. She personified parts of Blow’s novel, creating singing characters called Destiny and Loneliness, appearing to the opera’s main character at various points to help tell his difficult and painful story of abuse and being an outsider while growing up.
Lemmons told Silverman that she believes audiences will be able to see past Blow’s traumatic childhood and, instead, draw inspiration from his story.
“It’s deeply sad, but the thing that’s not sad is Charles Blow,” she said. “The remarkable aspect of the story is how you can draw strength from pain.”
“The mere fact that Charles is such a success in his life indicates how much he overcame,” Blanchard said, echoing Lemmons’ sentiments. “Hopefully, some young kid coming to this opera will see that. Hopefully, it can really change some people’s lives.”
As for his historic premiere at the opera house and being the first composer to have his work performed in such an arena, Blanchard told Silverman, “of course you’re filled with pride. But there’s a certain sense of, not guilt, but sorrow, because I know I’m not the first who was qualified.”
For example, Blanchard recalled the first time he heard Highway 1, a one-act opera composed by Black musician William Grant Still in 1963, and remembers thinking, “why couldn’t that be at the Met?”
Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be performed eight times during its run at the Metropolitan Opera House, with its final performance on Oct. 23 scheduled to livestream in movie theaters across the country. The opera is also co-directed by Camille A. Brown, who will become the first Black director on the Opera House’s main stage.