Stephanie and I saw *Fire Shut Up In My Bones* at the Met on October 8, 2021. It’s a new opera by Terence Blanchard with a libretto by Kari Lemons based on the memoir by Charles M. Blow. It had its premiere in St. Louis in 2019, This was the first time the Met had done an opera by a Black composer.
It was a very powerful story, about a young Black man coming to terms with the abuse he had suffered as a child and also with his sexual orientation. I would call the opera a success but see it as a deeply flawed work. On the plus side, the music was involving and served the story. This is a good litmus test for what makes something a successful opera: is the music the motor of the drama? In this case, yes. On the minus side, there was way too much repetition. There was a refrain in the first act that I swear we heard eight times, with no discernible variation. It was aggravating. Many times we would hear something and then the character or characters would rewind and sing the same thing again. This doesn’t move the story forward and worse, it gets on my nerves.
Here's baritone Will Liverman singing his aria "Peculiar Grace:"
The high point of the score was a lovely aria sung by the extraordinary soprano Angel Blue, who I had heard as Bess in *Porgy and Bess* last season. The orchestra dropped out and the aria was scored for her and an offstage chorus. This change in texture was magical and the aria was a much-needed moment of lyricism. The vocal writing was skillful in some ways (Blanchard knows how to hit the sweet spot in the voice) but he rarely gave them anything gorgeous or juicy to sing.
The other major roles were sung by soprano Latonia Moore and boy soprano Walter Russell III. Stephanie pointed out how unusual it is to have a role for a child and give that child so much to sing. Russell was wonderful, not just his singing but also in his acting.
The opera was skillfully directed by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown with choreography by Brown. One scene takes place in a fraternity with a group of frat boys doing a step dance or drum line. This number, which consisted of speaking and dancing, stopped the show. Sort of a strange thing to say about an opera, that the stand-out moment was a moment with no actual music.
This didn’t happen by design, but we happened to see the one performance in the run that wasn’t conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s Music Director. Our performance was conducted by Kazem Abdullah, a Black conductor who has worked on and off at the Met for over ten years. A Black conductor for this show had an extra impact - - when the company took their bows, there wasn’t a single white person on the stage. That was awesome.