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On the Cusp of a Historic Met Premiere, Terence Blanchard Reflects on an Opera That "Doesn't Belong to Me"

Terence Blanchard at The Met
Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera
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Composer Terence Blanchard (with Metropolitan Opera music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin) speaks with the Met Orchestra before a rehearsal of his 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones.'

Terence Blanchard has made his mark in more than one arena: as a multiple-Grammy-winning jazz artist, as a music educator, and as the prolific film composer best known for his work with Spike Lee.

He has also entered the realm of opera, in a big way: Fire Shut Up in My Boneshis latest work, opens the Metropolitan Opera’s new season. It will be the Met's first presentation of an opera by a Black composer, a historic honor that Blanchard took with utmost seriousness.

The trumpeter and composer recently spoke with Nate Chinen in a WBGO Members event, during a break in rehearsals at The Met. Speaking over Zoom, he described the origins of the opera, adapted from a book by the same title — the heralded memoir of New York Times columnist Charles Blow.

As a relative newcomer to the opera world, Blanchard relied on an all-star collaborative team. The libretto is by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, and the directors are James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, who also served as choreographer. The cast includes several rising stars, including baritone Will Liverman and sopranos Angel Blue and Latonia Moore. Blanchard says that composing for these singers presented his greatest challenge — and opportunity.

African-American singers in the opera world, when they come to this world, they are told to turn off their heritage. You know, they have to put that aside to be able to sing opera. Well, the thing that we talked about, the very first meeting of rehearsal, if you will, is that I want them to bring all of that back into this.
Terence Blanchard

In this way, among others, Fire Shut Up in My Bones has the potential to expand the framework for modern opera, reinvigorating the art form by opening it up to new voices, and to a crucial part of the American experience. So Blanchard describes the work very much as a collective endeavor.

Terence Blanchard and Nate Chinen

"I can't wait for people to see this — not because it's my opera, but because there's so many talented people who are involved in this process," Blanchard says. "And Nate, one of the beautiful things about this for me is that it doesn't belong to me. You know what I mean, it's like everybody in it has taken on. Jim Robinson has been an amazing director, he's the guy I've been working with since the beginning, since my beginning in this world. And everyone else, all of the leads — Will Liverman, Latonia Moore — they're just incredible. And here's the thing that I think makes the most powerful statement. They all see themselves in these characters. You know what I mean? That's the thing that's really pushing or driving the work that's being done."

Fire Shut Up in My Bones opens on Sept. 27, and will be simulcast for free in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park. The opera runs through Oct. 23 at the Metropolitan Opera; for more information, visit metopera.org.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 200 awards from organizations like PRNDI, AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.