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Fire Shut Up in My Bones

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By Becky Sprecher

The second opera in this year’s Hi-Def Series from the Met, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” will air at at 1 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 23 at USC Beaufort’s Center for the Arts. Produced in partnership with the Chicago Lyric and Los Angeles Opera, it is based on a memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow. The production also gives us three historic firsts.

This is the first opera by a Black composer to be presented, not only by the Met, but by any New York institution. Composer Terence Blanchard, however, is not unknown to music lovers, particularly jazz fans. He got his start when he replaced Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, playing with the band from 1982-86.

Since then, Blanchard’s been nominated for 13 Grammys, written the scores for more than 60 films (including Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “BlacKkKlansman”), and even wrote an opera about a prize fighter called “Champion.” He also served as artistic director for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the University of California in Los Angeles.

The libretto was written by a Black woman, Kasi Lemmons, who directed the 2019 Harriet Tubman biopic, “Harriet.” Although new to the genre, she liked the fact that in opera different things can be happening at different places onstage yet work together musically.

And thirdly, we have a Black director, Camille Brown, who choreographed last year’s sensational production of “Porgy and Bess.” She will both choreograph and co-direct along with James Robinson.

In an interview with Opera News magazine, Brown commented on the differences between the two operas.

“It’s beautiful to have music by a Black artist in the opera world, and for people to hear the authenticity of it,” Brown said. “It’s different from ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which is a show about Black people but wasn’t written by Black people. This is a show about a Black person composed by a Black artist.”

And to top it off, the Met chose “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” to be the season opener for the 2021-2022 season after an 18-month COVID-19 shutdown. Although the Met has employed singers and conductors from a wide array of ethnic backgrounds in past years, this premiere sends a clear signal that talented writers, composers, and directors of color have now arrived in the opera world. This is big, y’all.

The story opens as a 20-year-old Charles is driving down a Louisiana backroad to his childhood home. In a series of flashbacks, we learn the painful story of his childhood.

Charles the teenager is presented in Act II, where we find him growing increasingly isolated because of his secrets. But when he meets a beautiful girl, he begins to develop some independence and applies to go to college.

As a young adult on campus in Act III, he is now old enough to realize that his anger from his childhood trauma is influencing not only his present life but his destiny, and he must address it. Whether or not he decides to do so in a constructive way, we shall find out.

It will be interesting to see how Blanchard leads us through this difficult story about the cycle of sexual assault and violence in a musical way. He says he found writing for classical singers a challenge because every voice “blooms” in different registers, regardless of their classification as a soprano, baritone, etc.

As she immersed herself in the project, librettist Kasi Lemmons told Opera News that, “the text in opera is often felt as unimportant. I’m aware that some librettos are really not great, but I wanted this to be beautiful. I wanted it to stand alone.”

Also note that she personifies Charles’ Loneliness and his Destiny, having the same performer sing both roles because in life, sometimes they can be one and the same.

The production showcases a group of great singers. Baritone Will Liverman, one of opera’s most exciting young stars, sings the role of Charles. He was described as “a voice for this historic moment,” by the Washington Post. The ravishing crossover soprano Angel Blue, who wowed Met audiences in “Porgy” last season, will sing the dual roles of Destiny and Loneliness. Houston-born Latonia Moore sings the part of Charles’ mother, Billie.

If you’re curious about what an opera composed for classical singers written by a contemporary jazz musician will sound like, Google the Met’s trailers. Viewers are we going to be in for an incredible experience. After just a few seconds, it’s clear this groundbreaking production will show the world that opera that can handle all kinds of musical genres and stories going forward and cast aside the misconception that operatic productions are all about events written 200 years ago by white men — although they are wonderful, too. Opera is vibrant and alive, and we need to see and hear how today’s artists from across the spectrum use this art form to tell their stories.

This is surely a wonderful moment for opera, but these folks are not the first ones to be qualified. One can only wonder what would have happened if Duke Ellington had finished an opera or if James Baldwin had written one; or if William Grant Still, who did compose operas, with Langston Hughes as librettist had made it to the Met stage — had only they had been invited. Hopefully this will get you off the sofa and over to your computer to buy a ticket. Mask up and see you there!

Content advisory: Adult themes and language. Depending on Vaccine Protocols, some young children’s roles may be sung by older singers. For a full synopsis and production details, visit metopera.org. Run length: 2 hrs. 30 min, plus a 30-min. intermission between Acts I & II. Book tickets online at uscbcenterforthearts.com, then click Met, Movies and More. Tickets: $22. OLLI members: $20

WANT TO GO?

What: Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the second opera in the Hi-Def Series from the Met

When: 1 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 23.

Where: USC Beaufort’s Center for the Arts

Tickets: Book tickets online at uscbcenterforthearts.com. Tickets are $22, $20 for OLLI members.

To watch the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVMvvFDbFFk

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