On the eve of a historic premiere at the Met, Terence Blanchard reflects on an opera that “does not belong to me”
Terence Blanchard has made his mark in more than one area: as a multiple Grammy-winning jazz artist, as a music teacher, and as a prolific film composer best known for his work with Spike Lee. .
He also entered the field of opera, in an important way: Fire shut up in my bones his latest work, opens the new season of the Metropolitan Opera. This will be the first presentation at the Met of an opera by a black composer, a historic honor that Blanchard has taken with the utmost seriousness.
The trumpeter and songwriter recently spoke to Nate Chinen at a WBGO members’ event, during a hiatus from rehearsals at the Met. Speaking on Zoom, he described the origins of the opera, adapted from a book of the same title – the heralded memoirs of New York Times columnist Charles Blow.
As a relatively newcomer to the world of opera, Blanchard has relied on a collaborative team of stars. The libretto is by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons and the directors are James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, who has also been a choreographer. The cast includes several rising stars, including baritone Will Liverman and sopranos Angel Blue and Latonia Moore. Blanchard says composing for these singers has been his biggest challenge – and opportunity.
African American singers in the opera world, when they come into this world, they are told to extinguish their legacy. You know, they have to put that aside so they can sing opera. Now, the thing that we talked about, the very first rehearsal meeting, if you will, is that I want them to bring it all back into it.
In this way, among other things, Fire shut up in my bones has the potential to expand the framework of modern opera, reinvigorating the art form by opening it up to new voices and a crucial part of the American experience. So Blanchard describes the work as a collective enterprise.
“I can’t wait for people to see this – not because it’s my opera, but because there are so many talented people involved in this process, ”says Blanchard. “And Nate, one of the beautiful things about that for me is that it doesn’t belong to me.” You see what I mean, it’s like everyone’s got the upper hand. Jim Robinson has been an incredible director, he’s the guy I’ve worked with from the start, from my debut in this world. And everyone else, all the main cast – Will Liverman, Latonia Moore – are just amazing. And here’s the thing that I think makes the most powerful statement. They all see themselves in these characters. You know what I mean? It’s the thing that really pushes or drives the work that gets done.“
Fire shut up in my bones opens September 27 and will air simultaneously for free in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. The opera runs through October 23 at the Metropolitan Opera; for more information, visit metopera.org.