Terence Blanchard, first Black opera debut at the Met

Opening Night of the 2021–22 season, will be a historic occasion as the Met’s first performance of an opera by a Black composer. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Grammy Award-winning jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s moving memoir, which The New York Times praised after its 2019 world premiere at Opera. Theatre of Saint Louis as “bold and affecting” and “subtly powerful.”

Louisiana native Terence O. Blanchard is the first Black artist to debut an original Opera at the famous Metropolitan Opera House. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is based on the memoir of Charles M. Blow, another Black Louisianan.

Blow is a Best-Selling Author, New York Times columnist, CNN Contributor, and the host of Prime with Charles M. Blow on the Black News Network.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones tells about a young man’s journey to overcome a lifetime of trauma and hardship. The opera follows Charles through his adolescence and ultimately leads to a fateful moment: He must decide whether to break free from his trauma and begin to rebuild his life.

“Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones is the first work by a Black composer to be presented at the Met. Based on Charles M. Blow’s moving memoir of the same name and featuring a libretto by Kasi Lemmons, the new staging is co-directed by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown. Brown, who is also the production’s choreographer, becomes the first Black director to create a main stage Met production. Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts a stellar cast, led by Will Liverman as Charles, Angel Blue as Destiny/Loneliness/Greta, and Latonia Moore as Billie,” according to the Met’s press release.

“I had no idea I was the first Black to have an opera at the Met,” Blanchard, a New Orleans native, said in the Creative Forces Behind Fire Shut Up in My Bones. “It’s an overwhelming, huge honor, but I know I’m not the first qualified to do it.”

Blanchard, 59, began playing piano by the age of five, switched to trumpet three years later, and played alongside childhood friend Wynton Marsalis in summer band camps.

Blow marvels at the Met’s embrace of his memoir. “I’m still that little boy from a nowhere place in the world. For the Met to say it’s grand enough is truly an honor.”

Charles McRay Blow, 51, is a native of Gibsland, Louisiana. Gibsland is a town of 563 residents in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. The city is best known for its connecting railroads, the birthplace of Coleman College, and the nearby capture in 1934 of the bandits Bonnie and Clyde.

Senior vice president at Harper-Collins, Jonathan Burnham, describes Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones as a psychological thriller. During a public discussion about the memoir, Burnham questioned Blow about his motivation for writing the book.

“The title comes from the Bible,” Blow said. Jeremiah 20:9 says: “I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His name. But His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not hold back.”

At age seven, Blow was sexually assaulted by a cousin, Chester. Blow didn’t tell anyone about it. He struggled with the trauma Chester caused. As a young man, Blow had to accept that what happened wasn’t his fault. He also had to deal with confusion over his sexual identity.

The memoir opens with 20-year-old Charles sitting in a car, holding a gun, and deciding whether to kill his abuser. “To me Chester was the devil,” he said.

He credits the self-sufficiency he learned watching successful Black professionals in a segregated community thrive while owning property, growing their own food, and leading institutions. Blow, like his mother, is a “super survivor.”

Blow came out as bisexual in 2014 upon the publication of the Fire Shut Up in My Bones memoir. He is the divorced father of three adult children.

Blow survived the trauma, graduated magnum cum laude from Grambling University with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications, and became an award-winning graphic designer, journalist, author, father and husband.

“With an expansive body of work, including the scores for numerous Spike Lee films and an extensive discography, 2018 USA Fellow and six-time Grammy-winning trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard has been a consistent artistic force for making powerful musical statements concerning painful American tragedies. He studied jazz at Rutgers University and was invited to play with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1982. Following a string of collaborative recordings, he released his first self-titled solo album on Columbia Records in 1991. In 2015, he released his first album with his jazz quintet E-Collective, and most recently, the ensemble collaborated with the Turtle Island Quartet for a new album, Absence, that released in 2021 on the Blue Note label. He was nominated for Academy Awards for his original scores for the films BlacKkKlansman in 2019 and Da 5 Bloods in 2021. In 2013, his first opera, Champion, had its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and six years later, that same company premiered his Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” according to the Met.

Opening Night of the 2021–22 season, will be a historic occasion as the Met’s first performance of an opera by a Black composer. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Grammy Award-winning jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s moving memoir, which The New York Times praised after its 2019 world premiere at Opera. Theatre of Saint Louis as “bold and affecting” and “subtly powerful.”

Featuring a libretto by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, Fire Shut Up in My Bones is about a young man’s journey to overcome a life of trauma and hardship.

James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, two of the creators of the Met’s sensational recent production of Porgy and Bess, co-direct this new staging; Brown, who is also the production’s choreographer, becomes the first Black director to create a main stage Met production.

“Baritone Will Liverman, one of opera’s most exciting young artists, stars as Charles, alongside sopranos Angel Blue as Destiny/Loneliness/ Greta and Latonia Moore as Billie,” the Met reported.

“I want to make sure the people whose shoulders I’m standing on will be proud. My hope and dream is to have some little kids come up knowing they can overcome and succeed in life.”

“Terence is a genius. When this is over, I will have a soundtrack to my life written by Terence Blanchard,” Blow said gleefully.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is a two-hour, 40-minute opera. It opened on September 27 and runs through October 23. Visit <metopera.org> for more information,

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