Metropolitan Opera makes history with first work by a Black composer

Free Press wire reports | 9/30/2021, 6 p.m.
“We bend, we don’t break. We sway!” sings the chorus in the second act of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up ...
Cast members perform during a rehearsal Sept. 24 of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” an opera by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The opera, the first by a Black composer in Met history, is based on the 2014 memoir of New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Photo by Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

NEW YORK - “We bend, we don’t break. We sway!” sings the chorus in the second act of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”

That is how much of the audience of about 4,000 in the Metropolitan Opera felt as they watched Monday night’s landmark performance, the first staged work in the house since March 2020 and the first by a Black composer in the long history of a company that launched in 1883.

With many of the women wearing evening gowns and jewels and a large percentage of the men in black tie and even a few in white tie, tails and top hats, people greeted each other to celebrate their return to Lincoln Center after an absence they never imagined.

After a historic gap of 566 days, the country’s largest performing arts organization had resumed staged presentations in the start of the season scheduled to run until June 11. The return attracted a far more diverse audience than it usually attracts and was simulcast live to video screens in Times Square and Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park.

There was a minute ovation for the orchestra at the start, even before “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung with many a shimmering high note. And when it was over more than three hours later, about nine more minutes of applause for the cast, the composer, librettist and film maker Kasi Lemmons, the production team and finally Charles M. Blow, The New York Times opinion columnist whose 2014 memoir was adapted for the opera.

The evening was a triumph for Mr. Blanchard, a 59-year-old jazz trumpeter and composer who, like Mr. Blow, is from Louisiana. A wrenching tale of child molestation in segregated northern Louisiana of the 1970s is beautifully composed with nuances of shade and color.

“Fire” premiered in 2019 at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and was brought to the Met as part of a co-production that will travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago in March and Los Angeles Opera in a future season. The Oct. 23 matinee from the Metropolitan Opera, the last of eight performances, will be broadcast to movie theaters around the world.

This was Mr. Blanchard’s second opera after 2013’s “Champion,” about boxer Emile Griffith, and the music is most colorful and moving in orchestral parts. At times, the vocal writing can seem more restrained, especially in the first act. Energy lifts at the start of the second act in a Baptist church with “Wash Me Clean” and his recollection of a storm from his youth.