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Terence Blanchard's opera 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones' is more than a historic first

Terence Blanchard at The Met
Rose Callahan
/
Met Opera
Composer Terence Blanchard taking a curtain call following the premiere performance of his opera 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones.'

“I sway. I sway! My roots run deep...” sings Will Liverman at a key moment in Terence Blanchard’s opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones. “I bend, I don’t break! I sway!”

That vow of determination expresses a saving grace about Charles, the tortured protagonist at the heart of the opera, intensely embodied by Liverman. But its resilience also communicates something greater than any one story.

Nate Chinen and Greg Bryant at The Met
Larry Blumenfeld

“That encapsulates the African-American experience,” our own Greg Bryant reflects in this episode of Jazz United, which we’ve devoted to Fire. Last week, Greg joined Nate Chinen for the work’s historic premiere at The Metropolitan Opera — when it became the first opera presented by a Black composer in The Met’s 138-year history.

Nate reviewed the opera for NPR Music, calling it “magnetically powerful.” But both of us came away from the evening with a lot to say, and we knew we had to talk about it here — as a potent translation of Charles M. Blow’s unflinching memoir; as a groundbreaking moment for Black creators in the operatic realm; as an emotional experience, both onstage and in the hall.

Blanchard has proven that he’s boundless as an improviser, a film composer, and a bandleader. Fire is less about forcing improvisational music onto the canvas, and more about drawing from one of the music’s core philosophies: that the composer should serve the narrative by any means necessary. The music and its performers serve Kasi Lemmons’ libretto masterfully — combining a command of the classical tradition with a commitment to convey the Black experience.

In our conversation, we reflect on that musical feat, and why Blanchard was the ideal composer for the task — and muse about the opera’s broader impact, as more institutions grapple with the issue of representation, and creators continue to seek avenues for their work.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones: “Bend, Don’t Break”

This I Dig: Nate recommends a profile of Jeff “Tain” Watts on Jazz Night in America. Greg wants to shout out Guantanamera, where he and Nate had dinner after the show.

Jazz United is produced by Trevor Smith for WBGO Studios.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.