Music

Terence Blanchard on Making Metropolitan Opera History With ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’

Terence Blanchard received a seven-minute standing ovation after the opening night performance of “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” marking his becoming the first Black composer to step onto the stage of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera house.

Often known for his score work on Spike Lee films, or his solo endeavors as a jazz trumpeter and musician, Blanchard worked on the stage adaptation of a memoir by Charles M. Blow. Due to the COVID shutdown, the Met didn’t operate for 18 months, but returned with Blanchard’s opera front and center.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” Blanchard days after that historical event. “The rehearsal process was magical because everyone came prepared ready to go. There were all these great forces involved.” Among the artists involved were: Camille A. Brown who co-directed the Met production with James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer and Yannick Nézet-Séguin who served as music director and conductor.

Says Blanchard of Nézet-Ségui: “I watched him, and I told him, watching him conducting opera is like herding elephants, it’s a huge thing. Watch him move around and keep everything together is amazing.”

“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” tells a poignant and profound story 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: when he must decide whether to break free from his past and begin to rebuild his life.

The idea initially came from his wife who suggested it to Blanchard. His love for opera is rooted in his childhood. Blanched describes his father as an opera lover who collected various recordings. “They came in boxes and we weren’t allowed to touch them at all,” Blanchard recalls. “The plastic sleeves are pristine. But he would play them at the weekend, and I’d be so mesmerized.”

It stuck.

The difference between music for screen and stage can be enormous. Blanchard, who recently completed Lee’s “NYC EPICENTERS 9/11➔2021½” and is set to return to “Perry Mason” for a second season, views it as such: “With film, you’re helping someone else tell their story. With opera, it’s on me to begin with and then people take that and begin from there. From beginning to end it’s all about me.”

Even when there are silent moments, or “nothing is going on,” Blanchard adds, it’s still on him to determine how long that silence lasts. “It’s a lot of work. You have to write these lines for vocalists to sing throughout the night, and you have to make it interesting,” he says of the process. He also has to take in the different vocal functions of the actors when writing.

Performances for “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” Continue at the MET on the following nights: Oct. 8, Oct. 13, Oct. 16, Oct. 19 and Oct. 23.

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