Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Met Reopens: Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones

On September 27, the Metropolitan will open its 2021-2022 season with a company premiere, Terence Oliver Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My bones, its Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting. The event has sparked intense interest and much excitement. The gala evening will mark the first operatic performance on the Met stage since the theater went dark on March 11, 2020 just as COVID began to crush New York City. Anticipation of the suspenseful reopening has been heightened by the rush of articles and interviews that have poised operaphiles and many new to the genre to receive the first opera composed by a Black artist in the nearly 140-year history of the Metropolitan. James Robinson and Camille A. Brown are the co-directors of this production. Brown and Kasi Lemmons make history as well as the first Black director and librettist to be engaged for the Met’s mainstage.  

Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blanchard’s second opera (his first was Champion [2013]) had its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2019. This restaging is a co-production of the Met, the Los Angeles Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.  

Librettist, actress, and film director Lemmons (her most recent movie is Harriet [2019], the life of Harriet Tubman) has provided a strong dramatic structure for journalist and opinion writer Charles Blow’s coming-of-age memoir. The protagonist is enacted by two characters, the adult Charles and his seven-year-old self, Char’es-Baby. The narrative is framed by the episode in which the twenty-year-old Charles is driving back to his home in rural Louisiana after a long absence, hell-bent on murdering Chester, his mother’s cousin, who had abused him when he was but a boy. The story unfolds in flashbacks, in scenes of his mother and her fellow chicken-pluckers at work, of the impending rape, of his religious awakening, and of his escape from the confines of the rural South thanks to a college scholarship. Disillusioned in love, Charles telephones his mother and learns that Chester has returned. The opera ends as it begins, Charles in his car, a gun by his side, ultimately convinced by his younger self to abandon thoughts of vengeance and to look ahead instead to his own future. The title, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is borrowed from the prophet Jeremiah who vowed not to speak God’s name although “the 'Word' was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones which wanted vent.” Blow’s memoir, a bildungsroman of sorts, is the "word" that wanted venting.

Blanchard’s score is indebted to his success as a jazz trumpeter and as a composer of music for the screen. A jazz quartet will partner with the Met orchestra on an eclectic musical commentary inflected by gospel, R&B, big-band, and classical instrumentations. We conclude this post with two excerpts from Fire Shut Up in My Bones. The first clip features soprano Karen Slack who created the role of Billie, Charles’s mother, in the work’s Saint Louis premiere.

 

 


Baritone Justin Austin sings Charles’s arioso, “Peculiar Grace.”



Will Liverman is the Met’s adult Charles. Sopranos Angel Blue and Latonia Moore assume the principal female roles. The opening night performance will be heard on the Met’s audio website and on Sirius/XM. The October 23 performance will be seen in the Live in HD series and will be retransmitted as part of the regular Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts on January 8.