Opera companies like to open their seasons with sure things—big-name singers and proven masterpieces.
But New York’s Metropolitan Opera threw caution to the wind and launched its 2021-22 line-up with a work that had been performed just once before, in 2019—Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”—and it turned out to be a sensation.
“That was another moment of disbelief,” Blanchard said of the Met’s decision. “How is this happening? What is going on here?”
Lyric Opera of Chicago seems to be on track to generate much the same buzz when it presents the opera March 24-April 8. Because ticket sales were already soaring as early as December, the company proactively added a sixth performance to the run.
Why has this new work captured the public’s imagination while some contemporary operas can be a hard sell? For starters, it helps to have a jazz luminary as its composer, someone that Lyric’s top leader calls “one of the legendary musical artists of our time.”
Second, it has the distinction of being the first opera by a Black composer to be performed at the Met and it will be the second at Lyric Opera after a production of Anthony Davis’ “Amistad” in 1997.
But perhaps most important is simply the musical and dramatic impact of the work itself. “It really is a tremendously spellbinding experience,” said Anthony Freud, Lyric Opera’s president, general director and CEO. “So, I’m thrilled that it has become as popular as it has, but I’m not surprised.”
The opera is based on Charles Blow’s best-selling memoir of same title. It tells of the New York Times columnist’s harrowing childhood, marked by poverty and abuse, and how he had to come to terms with his past to have a chance at a future.
“Not only is it a Black story,” said baritone Will Liverman, “it’s also a story that really isn’t talked about a lot. Abuse is something that happens to a lot of people and folks are afraid to talk about it, and this opens the door to have these conversations.”
Liverman, who took part in the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric’s training arm, in 2012-15, is returning to the company to star as Charles, reprising the central role that he also sang in the Metropolitan Opera’s production.
“It was a special time,” Liverman said. “It was a nervous time with COVID. But, overall, it is a memory that will stay with me for a long, long time—to be part of that run that was historic on so many levels.”
Blanchard had never considered writing an opera. But when officials at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis considered producing a jazz opera, they consulted Gene Dobbs Bradford, then head of Jazz St. Louis. He recalled a conversation in which Blanchard discussed his father’s love of opera, and Bradford recommended the trumpeter as a possible composer.
The company’s artistic director James Robinson met with the jazz musician in New York and put the idea to him. “I leaned across the table to smell his breath,” Blanchard said. “I was like, ‘Do you have the right person?’ And we just kind of proceeded from there.”
The multi-Grammy Award winning Blanchard has written an array of jazz works and has been nominated for two Academy Awards for his film scores (“Da 5 Bloods,” “BlacKkKlansman”), but he called moving into the realm of opera a “huge leap” because of the need to write for voice, something he had not done before.
Blanchard’s first opera, “Champion,” debuted in 2013, and based on its success, Opera Theatre St. Louis asked him to do a second. The idea to adapt Blow’s memoir came from the composer’s wife and agent, Robin Burgess, who read it and was moved by it.
To produce the libretto, the two approached Kasi Lemmons, a friend of Blanchard who has served as the director and screenwriter for such films as “Eve’s Bayou” and “Harriet.” She had a “secret love” of opera and even put writing a libretto on her bucket list.
But a libretto is very different than a screenplay. She had a two-hour lunch with Robinson, who is serving as co-director of Lyric’s production. He gave her some pointers and spoke of what he called the “freedom of opera.”
The first time she heard a performance of the opera’s first aria featuring Blanchard’s music fused with her words, she burst into tears. “I’m almost indescribably proud of this opera and what Terence was able to accomplish,” she said. “It’s just amazing.”
Although Opera Theatre of St. Louis originally wanted a jazz opera, what he has produced in his first two works in the form far transcend the jazz realm. He melds the sounds of that style and his immersion in the music of the Black church as a child with his love of classical music and opera.
“While there is a jazz quartet in each one of them, that is not the main focal point,” Blanchard said. “For me, I’m trying to do what all the great opera composers have done in the past. They tried to take all the folklore from their communities and draw upon it to tell stories, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Many new operas receive a burst of attention around their premieres but are quickly forgotten. But Liverman is confident that plight is not going to befall “Fire.”
“There is just so much about this piece,” LIverman said, “that makes it our next great American opera.”
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