Dialogues: “Talking Race at the Opera” by the Chicago Humanities Festival

I praised Terence Blanchard’s opera Fire locked in my bones. The opening night performance at the Lyric was filled with excitement and local luminaries. The following evening, I had the privilege of listening to Blanchard and conductor Daniela Candillari in a Chicago Humanities Festival program: Talking Race at the Opera was hosted by former Tribune music and opera writer Howard Reich. The setting was the historic Chicago Temple building.

Howard Reich and Terence Blanchard. Photo by Todd Rosenberg 2022.

Blanchard and Maestra Candillari were very comfortable talking about the last presentation of the opera. Fire locked in my bones got his start in St. Louis before going to the venerable Met in New York. Chicago seems to be their absolute favourite. Blanchard commented that hearing his music at the Lyric was unlike any experience he had before. There was also the disclaimer that this was not the first opera written by a black person. He was the first to be carried out in a grand opera.

When the production was at the Met, he was shown a book of operas by African-American composers, including William Grant Still, who never saw the production because the powers that be at the time didn’t think a person black woman could write classical music. He pointed out that there are so many black composers that we have never heard of because of the era in which they lived. “I would be the first but not the first qualified,” which drew applause from the audience. People haven’t understood that in music “tradition is to break tradition”. Blanchard grew up with his father singing classical music. “He had a beautiful baritone and the records he played were like gold.” He recalled the band of black men his father sang with and how much that influenced him. He also related that he was the foreigner himself; while his buddies were playing ball in the street, he was rushing to music lessons with his trumpet.

Howard Reich, Terence Blanchard and Daniela Candillari. Photo by Todd Rosenberg 2022.

Canderllari commented that Blanchard’s experiences were part of the music’s DNA. She and Blanchard laughed when she said, “I hope you don’t hate me, but that was one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever done.” The tempos were changing and there was always a jazz undercurrent with five local jazz musicians added to the orchestra. Candillari said it was rewarding to play with such wonderful musicians and to have so much tradition in one score. She paraphrased the Russian poet Pushkin by saying “if you want to tell a world story, tell me about your village”. This is how the score was also accessible and challenging. Essentially, we all have some version of the same story, and it transcends race.

Howard Reich answered questions from the audience and I was one of the few who could ask a question. I mentioned the Step music and culture that was in Fire locked in my bones and how I didn’t see it as “hazing” when Charles promises Kappa Alpha Psi, the dark brotherhood. Why did he include it in the opera? He nodded and said, “They were going to take that portion off and I said no. It is an integral part of African-American college life. He agreed it shouldn’t be called hazing because black fraternities and sororities were a response to being unwelcome on campus. One of the rites of passage is the line of footsteps where dance moves and rhythmic punctuation are part of an accepted engagement. There’s some paddling, but that’s part of the bending, not the breaking, which is another theme of the brotherhood culture depicted. They transcended the ugliness and brutality of slavery into brotherhood.

A highlight of the opera for him, Blanchard said, was Billie’s aria about sending Charles to college and how each of his boys took a piece of her. He mentioned that it was a tribute to black mothers who are the backbone of their families. The tune was a bravura performance by Latonia Moore that brought the house down. We were treated to the song by Ryan Center alumnus Whitney Morrison and lyrical assistant bandleader William C. Bellingham. It was very moving and a reminder of the sacrifices all mothers have to make. Morrison gave it a searing rendition as Blanchard sat with his eyes closed, taking in the beauty of the music.

Whitney Morrison, Howard Reich and Terence Blanchard. Photo by Todd Rosenberg 2022.

Blanchard said he “had to take his ego out of the project and learn to receive the music”. He also reminded the audience, “Opera is the music of the people and a deeply rooted part of the culture from which it emerged.” He also told the audience to support the lead baritone of Fire locked in my bones--Will Liverman–next year when he brings his own opera Factotum at the Lyric for the 2022/2023 season. It was deeply moving when Blanchard said, “Music can heal and allow us to mourn the trauma and move on.” Words to keep close in these fractured times in our country.

More information can be found on the Chicago Humanities Festival websitewhere the program is archived.

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