NEW YORK — Though Fire Shut Up in My Bones will go down in history as the first Black-authored opera to be presented at the Metropolitan Opera in the company’s 138-year history, its significance is actually more profound: Composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Kasi Lemmons address the pernicious issue of child sexual abuse, unflinchingly and uncomfortably, which prompted first-night success at the season’s opening night Monday possibly beyond any optimistic predictions.
The public has heard the testimony and seen the faces of child-abuse victims in the news. But here, one enters the soul of New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, whose acclaimed 2014 memoir of the same title as the opera refers to the secrets of childhood sexual abuse that could hardly be vanquished by his dazzling career success. “Prepare to die! Motherf*****! And maybe the part of me I despise will die with you!” sings the older Charles, as he travels to take revenge on his perpetrator.
Three different worlds intermingle in ways that perhaps can only be accomplished in opera: Blow’s early, small-town Louisiana childhood upbringing; the older, urban-dwelling Blow coming to terms with what happened to him; and spectral characters identified as Destiny and Loneliness who express the protagonist’s crystalized feelings with input from unseen forces — and have some of the best music in the opera.
Of course, racial issues are prominent in this grand mosaic of southern African American culture. Honky-tonk clubs, church baptisms, and Black college fraternity culture are there, the dialogue often spoken in patois reminiscent of the late playwright August Wilson, who adorned his Chekhovian plots with dinner recipes, street music, and other touchstones that only a Black author would observe.
Written more like a play than in the telescoped style of an opera libretto, Fire Shut Up in My Bones doesn’t need so many of these peripheral elements. But the frat dance rituals (as choreographed by Camille A. Brown, the first Black stage director in the Met’s history) brought down the house. And one could argue that everything was part of the sexual landscape in Blow’s story, which is a journey from abuse to a conventional marriage to the realization of his bisexuality. To that end, there’s a major homo-erotic ballet that begins Act II. Among the many details that could only be told by someone who has lived such circumstances is how the townspeople see things in Charles long before he could see them in himself. One emblematic line: “The South is no place for a boy with peculiar grace.” Charles’ abuser justifies himself with the reasoning “Rules don’t apply to you and I….”
Most deftly, the opera knows when to be explicit and when to be suggestive. In the final scene of Act I, when you know the abusive act is only seconds away, the physical stage action stops, and we see a video-screen closeup of the victim’s unsettled face, not yet knowing or understanding what is happening to him. The opera ends not with the protagonist’s liberating confession of what happened to him at age 7, but his decision to disclose — with the courage to handle the consequences.
The 80-minute first act could definitely be trimmed, but you can trust an opera that isn’t tidy — and also respect music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin even more for maintaining the dramatic arc (especially in Acts II and III). Certainly, Allen Moyer’s revolving set and James Robinson’s direction kept the piece moving from a visual standpoint, accommodating realistic scenes, netherworlds inhabited by Destiny and Loneliness, and locales in-between. At its considerable best, the set conveyed realism with a fractured quality, such as forest scenes projected onto multiple screens showing how a suppressed personality can be manifested in a skewed world view. At its worst, the set wasn’t acoustically advantageous to the singers, which is why I’m looking forward to revisiting the piece at the Oct. 23 HD simulcast.
How would a composer find the right music for such situations? In parts of the first act, the libretto doesn’t leave Blanchard a lot of room for music, and at times, the music is fairly conventional — with vocal lines that express the word supported by harmonies with a generally appropriate emotional temperature. As a longtime film composer, Blanchard knows how to do utilitarian music that gets you to the parts of the story that are truly important.
The best music happens when this veteran trumpeter harnesses his decades as a jazz artist. The rhythm section imported to the Met orchestra (piano, bass, guitar, and drums) is crucial to what makes the score distinctive. More than any opera I’ve heard, this one uses rhythm as an expressive device. The vocal lines tell what the character is saying and feeling but rhythm tells when stage action is veering toward instability, danger, and tragedy. Often, Blanchard adds and subtracts notes — a technique also heard in Schubert and Glass — to create a gradual dramatic evolution.
Orchestration adds to that sense of progression with shifting colors, often not gradually but with dramatically timed abruptness. Most of the choruses are offstage; you don’t always know if you’re hearing angels or demons. Blanchard tends not to round out the action of a given scene; he just stops when the scene has accomplished what it needs to do. That takes getting used to but lends a greater sense of veracity to a world that’s never been seen on the Met stage.
Much of the vocal writing, especially early on, served mainly a narrative function. Only a bit later were there the kind of set pieces that showed off how Will Liverman (in the main role of Charles) ennobled everything he sang, not with any exterior sanctimony but through a candid portrayal of a distressed human soul. Charles’ bright, ambitious mother also carries a gun and looks for love in the wrong places, creating a lot of emotional ground for Latonia Moore to cover. But she did it, adding her trademark vocal luster whenever possible. The seven-year-old Charles was played by Walter Russell III, who deserves all possible awards for singing and acting a role that showed where the abuse started. Already a beloved Met star, Angel Blue (as Destiny and Loneliness, and also a girlfriend named Greta) delivered some of the most charismatic singing I’ve heard from her, her plush tone quality put to use in ways that kept you guessing if she was comforting or taunting the protagonist.
The inevitable question of why didn’t this happen before at the Met — in an era when Black composers have been somewhat represented in other American opera companies — is complex and probably unanswerable. Normally, I don’t wish new operas on the Met because of the necessity for these works to slot in with what is already there in that huge, 3,800-seat theater. Composers can lose their identity in the process. But Fire already existed, having been premiered at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2019. As for decades past, a cultural institution as traditional as the Met didn’t have the musical reach to do justice to any piece that freely crosses genres. When the Met was passing on operas by the likes of William Grant Still, what defined opera fell within a narrow Verdi-Wagner range that, on a good day, left a sliver of room for Samuel Barber. Any opera requiring an imported rhythm section may well have been a deal breaker.
And then there’s the Met’s traditionally uptown/out-of-town audience. Monday’s opening-night crowd was more than ready to emotionally receive Fire Shut Up in My Bones. After the trauma of the George Floyd murder, I’m not going to be upset by trivialities such as hearing the street language on the Met stage. This piece speaks the truth of our times, a truth that opera audiences are still coming to terms with and need all the help they can get to do so. That’s something different from the theater audiences that initially resisted West Side Story because it took them into a world from which they wanted to escape. Fire Shut Up in My Bones makes me want to know more.
How often can we expect stars to align for the creation of other works like this?
Well, one must ask, what is like this? With its combination of jazz influence and strong source material, emotional depth, and choreographic entertainment value, Fire Shut Up in My Bones is singular. It’s not for conservatives or liberals, for social justice crusaders or more laissez-faire advocates, but for anyone who has seen or is seeing their way out of deep, life-altering trauma. That can transcend everything.