The Met reopens on a historic night with “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”

Tue Sep 28, 2021 at 2:40 pm
By David Wright
Walter Russell III, Latonia Moore, Will Liverman and Angel Blue (in background) in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera

The Metropolitan Opera put on a gripping drama of crisis, loss, reflection and renewal Monday night—just by raising its curtain.

As the house chandeliers rose toward the ceiling, signaling an impending performance—and the end of 18 months of pandemic-mandated silence—the audience applauded lustily, then chimed in on the orchestra’s performance of the national anthem.

Not coincidentally, crisis and renewal were also the themes of the opera making its New York premiere that night: Fire Shut Up in My Bones by composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Kasi Lemmons, adapted from a coming-of-age memoir by journalist Charles M. Blow.

The first-night audience was also primed to cheer the first opera by a black composer ever staged by the Met. The famously Eurocentric company seemed to revel in leavening this sensitive psychological story with raunchy humor and spectacle straight out of African-American culture, including an ecstatic church service and a show-stopping step-dance number.

La Bohème it wasn’t. What it offered was a contemporary musical drama shaped by cinematic techniques of montage and scoring, by a mostly African-American team of veteran creators. The evening’s emotional rewards satisfied all but the most hidebound definitions of opera, and this eminently stageworthy work—along with Blue by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson—may signal a long-delayed African-American jolt about to hit opera houses in this country and even abroad.

Seesawing between internal monologue and real events, the opera traced the boy Charles’ early life from a Louisiana childhood in rural poverty, including a horrific incident of sexual abuse, through a quest for love and positive sexual experience to learning life lessons at a historically black college.

Blanchard, a respected jazz trumpeter and composer of film music, played to his strengths in this score, setting the scene with fluid transitions from vernacular songs to sophisticated jazz to lush symphonic textures to occasional outbursts of brassy dissonance. Anchoring it all, and appropriately credited by name in the program, was the rhythm section of pianist Bryan Wagorn, bassist Matt Brewer, guitarist Adam Rogers, and drummer Jeff Watts.

In what was mainly a dialogue opera, the score shaped and supported the characters’ speech rhythms. It was not a night of recitatives and arias, and at times the audience and performers seemed unsure about applause and whether to pause for it. Three-quarters of the way into the evening at the close of Act II, however, the composer gave the mother character, Billie, a full-fledged, front-and-center exit aria. Soprano Latonia Moore knocked it out of the park, to tumultuous applause.

In fact, the opera’s Act I, in which the protagonist Charles was seven years old, proved to be more about Billie and her travails with poverty and a philandering husband than about the developing young man. Moore brought rich physical and vocal presence to the role.

The boy Charles nevertheless proved crucial to the drama at many points. The young actor Walter Russell III brought fortitude and clear singing to the part, negotiating Blanchard’s complex rhythms and engaging the conscience of the audience through family strife and the offstage, but darkly hinted-at, sexual abuse by a cousin.

In the central role of older Charles, baritone Will Liverman made up in psychic intensity what he may have lacked in vocal wattage. (The vast house tended to attenuate all but the most powerful voices, despite Blanchard’s care not to cover them.)  His soliloquies and dialogues with his twin muses Destiny and Loneliness (both seductively sung by soprano Angel Blue) engagingly traced the character’s winding road toward wisdom.

While Blue sang beautifully, her triple casting as the allegorical figures and Charles’s real-life lover Greta was a little hard to parse in dramatic terms. Not so the double casting of the physically and vocally imposing bass-baritone Donovan Singletary as the inspirational Pastor in the church scene and as Kaboom, the drill sergeant of the college fraternity initiation—the good and “bad” Sarastro of Charles’s trials.

Other male characters came off less well in the story, though well portrayed by tenor Chauncey Packer as the charming but unreliable husband Spinner and baritone Chris Kenney (in his Met debut) as the slimy, child-abusing cousin Chester. Balancing these was the rich-toned bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as Uncle Paul, the kindly farmer teaching Charles how to make his garden grow.

The church choir and fraternity partiers, prepared by chorus master Donald Palumbo, brought a generous dose of soul and fun to the evening.

As a first-time librettist, actress and filmmaker Lemmons joined such literary luminaries as Ellison and Baldwin in weaving the complex texture of the black American experience into an intimate portrait of one character.

James Robinson and Camille A. Brown shared directorial credit, the former having first mounted the work at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and the latter bringing her choreographic skills to this production. A troupe of twelve writhing dancers inhabited Charles’s disturbed dreams and launched Act III with an exhilarating step dance out of black college fraternity tradition.

That number, extravagantly whimsical and admittedly an interpolation in Charles’s story, nevertheless stood for the discipline and determination literally drummed into HBCU students from Thurgood Marshall to Martin Luther King Jr., as the character Kaboom pointedly reminded the audience.

In the set by Allen Moyer, lighting by Christopher Ackerlind, and projections by Greg Emetaz (in his Met debut), the now-familiar technique of making quick-change scenery out of movable boxes with images projected on them was used resourcefully to produce many different geometric environments for the cinematic montage.

Paul Tazewell’s costumes suited characters from rural folk to the sophisticated lover Greta, with somewhat otherworldly flowing garments for singer Blue’s two muses and preppy white shirt and khakis for college man Charles.

On the podium, Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin was alert to every inflection of Blanchard’s eclectic score, gently (or sometimes forcefully) propelling the drama forward.

When he and the rest of the creative team—and Charles M. Blow himself—joined the singers and chorus dancers onstage at the end, not even the Met proscenium could contain the front row of featured players, which had to split in two for bows. The sight of the Met stage crammed to the wings once again drove the audience to ecstatic applause, and the performers waved and applauded back as the curtain slowly descended on an opening night like no other.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones runs through October 23. Kazem Abdullah will conduct on Oct. 8.; 212-362-6000.

Leave a Comment

" "


 Subscribe via RSS