We ride for the South. Don't you?
The Metropolitan Opera has ended its 138-year epoch of composer apartheid with the presentation of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, a production composed by New Orleans' most acclaimed living trumpet player, Terence Blanchard.
Based on the coming of age memoir by Charles M. Blow, the three-act opera, originally commissioned and developed by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, is set in Gibsland, Louisiana. The story plays out there and on the campus of Grambling State University, in the soft segregation years after Jim Crow had officially ended, but when Black provincial life was still lived separately under a seemingly open sky of largely foreclosed opportunity.
Underwritten by a $1.25 million Ford Foundation grant, The Met was unstinting, hiring dozens of chorus members, dancers and supernumeraries to populate, harmonize and dance, jump for joy, and erotically writhe to a seductive score that is almost sublimely anchored in the Black musical idioms of jazz, blues, funk, and gospel.
In New Orleans, it's well-known that Blanchard's love for Black music is a gift he inherited from his teacher Roger Dickerson, the composer of the musical Preacher Man! Preacher Man! Produced at Ashé Cultural Arts Center shortly before COVID-19 shut down the city, it also displays the history of Black vernacular music—work songs, blues, sacred music, spirituals, and gospel—as well as the be-bop of classical jazz.
Within the masterful grip of Blanchard's challenging, genre-expanding score, he and librettist Kasi Lemmons bring informed, intimate depictions of the easy affectionate banter of Black vitality, and the intricacies of survival strategies in extended family dynamics; Both the gallows humor of shift workers fated to handle blood and guts in a chicken processing factory and the ardor of church worship and honky tonk leisure find expression here. The episodes capture warmth and solidarity, but also the judgment, cutting gossip, and secrets in the daily grind of a Louisiana town described in the libretto as "a hard place to live, a good place to die."
Much has also been made of the work's presentation of step dancing as a celebratory spectacle of Black communal social cohesion and rite of passage to the middle class fraternal order of Greek life on HBCU campuses, a rare glimpse for some into an otherwise culturally-guarded experience. One boisterous scene culminates in Black fraternity pledges bending over to have their buttocks forcefully paddled in a savage hazing ritual to the tune of: "Muthafuckas! Get in the cut and hold your nuts!"
Questions continue to ferment as the opera dramatizes a narrative of Black excellence and exceptionality, familiar for its ideological terrain of ceaseless forbearance, the virtues of overcoming hardship, and resilience by default in the face of perpetual adversity. With its chock-a-block episodes of gun-play, womanizing, casual humorous references to Black criminality, and serial betrayals—including the violation of a precious child—the opera could easily be tucked in under the rubric of "Black trauma-porn," served up to an aging elite white audience by an institution wishing to appear "woke" while selling out the seats for a company operating in a serious post-pandemic deficit. Perhaps it should be, but nothing is ever only one thing.
Scalawag invited Givonna Joseph, founder and artistic director of New Orleans-based OperaCréole; Valencia Pleasant, a mezzo with the company; Larry Heard, education director of Baton Rouge's Opéra Louisiane; and Gregory Williams, artistic director at New Venture Theatre, also in Baton Rouge, to sift through the possibilities of this moment. For the most part, they celebrated The Met's staging of Blanchard's latest opera as a breakthrough with masterful performances of a sometimes hard-to-digest libretto and score.
Left to right: Givonna Joseph, Valencia Pleasant, Larry Heard, and Gregory Williams.
Image credits: Courtesy of OperaCréole, Gus Bennett, Michelle Nguyen, and New Venture Theatre.
The production is on its way to Chicago and Los Angeles, and its creators and boosters are touting it as a classic worthy of inclusion in the opera canon, even before giving an airing to what remains a vast backlog, still smothered by 138 years worth of crepuscular dust mites. That's what Andrew Jorgensen, general manager of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, called in an interview "the real estate problem."
His company, which has been producing operas by Black composers since 1989, has only four slots per season, and many diverse constituencies to serve and mission-driven functions to fulfill. They've commissioned 31 new works in 47 years—including Blanchard's first opera Champion in 2013—as a way of engaging in social dialogue.
That, of course, is the bitterest rub: The historic suppression of Black composers has excluded their works from achieving the status of classic that might guarantee them ubiquitous productions in perpetuity. Dozens of works have been hiding in plain sight as The Met pursued its deliberate course of racialized exclusion a full 72 years beyond rival New York City Opera's breakthrough production of William Grant Still's Troubled Island, a gorgeous opera about the Haitian revolution presented in 1949. (Given that this "first" is of The Met's own interminable delay, Scalawag notes the milestone with the measure of solemnity.)
Instead, we leave New York behind and return to where the Black Opera tradition first flourished—Louisiana. Now that the silence imposed from the highest echelons of American opera is finally over, Southern maestros have a lot to say about what could and should come next.
Louisiana's operatic history: 'We're ground zero.'
Free people of color formed their first independent orchestra in New Orleans in 1840, when 100 men—mostly free men of color—made a "very big political statement about opera that impacted the economics of opera," Joseph says of New Orleans' theatre history.
Williams attributes the city's cultural history to the unique mix of "spiritual and reality existing almost at the same time," coming in from Haiti, the Caribbean, and Congo Square.
What we loved about Fire Shut Up In My Bones
Williams, who's been at the creative helm of New Venture Theatre for 13 years, was thrilled by Blanchard's musical breakthrough at first listen, likening it to his first encounter with August Wilson's Fences.
Pleasant, who earned a Masters in Music at New York University where she sang Bizet, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Puccini—and learned nothing of Lucien Lambert and Edmond DéDé—was so impressed by the musical achievement of Blanchard's score, she was still defending it in her head to some women sitting behind her who didn't grasp his formal innovations.
Room for love, joy, and 'dimensionalities beyond pain'
While citing the work as a breakthrough, Joseph, Heard, Williams, and Pleasant all commented on the gravity of the subject matter, and lamented that a more uplifting story was not selected for the first Black opera staged at the Met. But Jorgensen focused on the care, concern and sensitivity with which they approached the presentation of Blow's story on the opera stage.
"Let me start maybe with what is perhaps most obvious, but also I think what is most important. This is a true story," he said. "For me, the critical thing is thinking about not what that says about a people or a background, but it's Charles Blow's lived experience, and one of the most important things to me is the nuance which is captured of his own lived experience. That was the first thing we wanted to be true in creating this opera, making sure that Kasi Lemmons and Charles Blow had an understanding, and that Charles was comfortable with the way Kasi was distilling his memoir."
At the same time, Jorgensen said he is aware that the act of highlighting any one lived experience by putting it on a stage can be perceived as an extrapolation from the particular to the universal—and in the process re-enforce anti-Black myths of racial pathology.
Turnkey, not token: Opening the archive
Heard said he will measure the success of this breakthrough not by how well it does solely for its composer, but by the openings it creates for Black opera composers who've been waiting their turn, many from their crypts.
Joseph makes no bones about her commitment and ambition to gain inclusion for more of Black opera's 19th and 20th century composers in the opera canon.
But she needs more hands on deck to share the workload and to bring additional resources to mount the many operas she would like to produce out of the backlog. William Grant Still's Bayou Legend is planned next, and then possibly one that opens in a jade market in Senegal.
The Black Opera tradition, pioneered in Louisiana and nurtured there for the last 180 years continues to live on. With practitioners like Joseph, Heard, Pleasant, and Williams on the case, its forefathers won't have to wait another 180 years for their music to be heard.
Bonus clip: For real opera heads
Listen to these experts nerd out on Blanchard's sly melodic innovations.