Terence Blanchard knows from experience that an opera that sounds and looks different from the classic repertory can bring new audiences to an old art form.
“An elderly African American man came up to me” after a performance of Blanchard’s jazz-infused opera "Champion" in 2013, the trumpeter/bandleader recalled, “and he said: Man, if this is opera, I will come.”
With his latest magnum opus, Blanchard wants to continue changing popular perceptions about opera — particularly, what stories it can tell, and who does the telling.
“Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” based on the memoir of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, makes its world premiere Saturday at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Blow, 48, became The Times’ graphics director at age 25 and has been an opinion columnist for the paper since 2008. As a writer and frequent guest on cable news programs, he’s a sharp-eyed critic of white supremacy in the United States.
Anti-black racism is not the central conflict of Blow’s memoir, which describes traumas he endured in his childhood and college years. But the piece draws extra power from simply calling upon black artists to tell a story rooted in black experience.
Blanchard, librettist Kasi Lemmons and all of the opera’s characters are African American.
“As a black woman and an opera singer, I don’t [get to] sing about myself,” said Karen Slack, who plays Blow’s mother, Billie. “To me, the thing is, are these real-blooded stories, told by black people, through black people?”
The answer in this case is: Yes.
“You start to realize, 'OK, it’s our turn.' It’s our turn to expand this experience for a lot of people,” Blanchard said. They can include audiences unaccustomed to hearing black stories onstage as well as artists of color who struggle to find professional opportunities in the predominantly white world of European classical music.
“If I’m going to be in [the opera] world, I’m going to do what I can to create those roles,” he said.
This is a moment in American opera when new voices are claiming more opportunities to tell their stories. “The Central Park Five,” an opera about the black and Latino youths who were wrongly imprisoned for raping a female jogger — a crime for which they were later exonerated — is making its premiere at Long Beach Opera. “Blue,” which is set amid the Black Lives Matter movement, premieres at the Glimmerglass Festival in July.
Blanchard is a six-time Grammy Award winner, bandleader and prolific composer of film scores. He’s had a long association with Spike Lee, and wrote music for films including “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” and “BlacKkKlansman.”
“Champion" was his first foray into opera as a composer, though he’s a longtime fan. Like “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” it was a joint commission by Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis.
Blow writes in his memoir of being sexually abused by a family member as a child in rural Louisiana, and struggling to grapple with his emerging bisexuality amid the hyper-masculine worlds of school sports and his college fraternity, of which he became president. Raised by a single mother, he was an academically gifted child who frequently felt like an outsider.
“Champion,” about the gay, black boxer Emile Griffith, also dealt with the complications of sexuality in a heteronormative society.
“It has to do with family, with community, with rejection and growth and resilience,” said Davóne Tines, who plays the adult Charles Blow. (The protagonist is represented as a child by Jeremy Denis.) “But it also has to do very specifically with what it means to be a queer, black male in America and the complexity of living that existence.”
Contemporary opera can speak directly to the current social moment, Blanchard said, and that’s nothing new.
“That’s what Puccini was doing. That’s what all of those guys were doing. They were taking stories that were relevant to their communities and staging them,” he said. “And I think opera has, I don’t want to say the duty, but it could have the responsibility of really affecting a lot of people’s lives.”
In his score, Blanchard wove together a blend of European classical influences and black American music. To pull it off, members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are augmented with a jazz combo.
The mix of styles is emblematic of his Blanchard’s broader concert with this project.
“I want it to sound like a hybrid of all of these genres: jazz, blues, orchestral music, operatic music, all coming together to tell one man’s story,” Blanchard said. “The whole idea behind this country has been to allow all of these cultures to come together to create something unique, something that’s never been done before. And that’s what I’m trying to do with this particular piece.”
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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