Met Returns With 1st Work By A Black Composer In Its History

NEW YORK (AP) — “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 launched in 1883.

After a historical gap of 566 days, the country’s largest performing arts organization resumed staged presentations at the start of the season scheduled to run until June 11. The return attracted a far more diverse audience than usually attends the Met and was simulcast live to video screens in Times Square and Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. With many 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 never imagined.

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 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 Blanchard, a 59-year-old jazz trumpeter and composer who, like 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 the Los Angeles Opera in a future season. (The Oct. 23 matinee from the Met, the last of eight performances, will be broadcast to movie theaters worldwide.) This was Blanchard’s second opera after 2013′s “Champion,” about boxer Emile Griffith, and the music is most colorful and moving in orchestral parts. Sometimes, the vocal writing can seem more restrained, especially in the first act.

Energy lifts at the start of the second act of Baptist church with “Wash Me Clean” and his recollection of a storm from his youth. There is an allusion in the text to what seems to be the “Liebesnacht” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” a duet between Charles and their girlfriend Greta proclaiming, “I used to hate the night. The night was my sworn enemy.” And picking up on the search for sexual identity, a theme from Blow’s book, Charles sings near the end, “I am what I am,” harking back to “La Cage aux Folles,” the 1984 Tony Award winner by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein.

Blanchard and Lemmons condense a largely descriptive book to key moments in Blow’s memoir: growing up the youngest of five children, the assault by a cousin Chester, his baptism, brutal hazing by a Grambling fraternity, and the search for love with first Evelyn and later Greta. Blanchard and Lemmons move the plot along by having the adult Charles (imposing baritone Will Liverman) sing alongside the young Charles, known as Char’es-Baby. The audience’s biggest response was for the dancing fraternity brothers, who stopped the show. Walter Russell III, a 13-year-old who played the young Charles, got the biggest individual cheers with a star-making performance that was charming, insightful, and moving.

An all-Black cast included soprano Latonia Moore as Charles’ doting mother, Billie, soprano Angel Blue in the endearing triple roles of Destiny, Loneliness, and Greta, and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as the menacing Uncle Paul. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in a colorful shirt markedly different from the attire of predecessor James Levine, and chorus master Donald Palumbo brought out a vibrant performance. Nézet-Séguin, showing a commitment to contemporary work seldom seen at the Met, is to lead Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” in November. Directors James Robinson and Camille A. Brown (she also was the choreographer) blocked a breezy production with sets by Allen Moyer dominated by two large squares that shifted on and off stage. Calling all HuffPost superfans! Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter.

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!