‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ Review: Finally a Black Composer at the Met
Enthusiastic ovations at the end were greeted by Blanchard, a jazz trumpeter best known for his soundtracks for Spike Lee films, and Kasi Lemmons, the author, director and actress who becomes the first black librettist of a work with âFireâ of the Met in its history. It was exciting to see how they were cheered on by an almost exclusively black cast, a choir and a dance troupe, as well as an audience with significantly more colored people than usual at a Met opening.
“Fire,” which premiered at the Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2019, is based on a 2014 memoir by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow; It’s an account of his tumultuous childhood in rural Louisiana, enduring emotional confusion, longing for affection from his hard-loving mother, and trying to cope with the wounds of sexual harassment. Blow’s book recalls his previous life from an adult’s perspective while conveying his experiences as if they were lived in the moment. Blanchard and Lemmons use an operatic trick to present this layering.
As the opera begins, we see Charles (muscular baritone Will Liverman in a groundbreaking performance) as a college student racing home gun in hand seeking revenge for being molested by his older cousin as a boy . In the next scene, his seven year old Char’es baby is played by Walter Russell III, an adorable lanky and sweet soprano. The means of having a character portrayed by two singers in different phases of life goes back a long way in opera and is powerful here. During long stretches of act one, Charles hovers around Char’es-Baby, issuing warnings the boy cannot hear, and they sometimes sing in a duo, with sinuous lyrical lines over gentle harmonies.
The opera also creates a dual female character, fate and loneliness to embody qualities that haunt Charles. The use of ghost-like characters is another well-known resource in opera, and here – with Angel Blue bringing her glowing soprano voice and casual charisma to the dual role – it’s more touching than the clichÃ© it could easily have been.
In his score, Blanchard skilfully mixes elements of jazz, blues, echoes of big band and gospel into a compositional voice that is dominated by lush chromatic and modal harmonic scripts, peppered with jagged rhythms and bitter dissonances. He commented on his approach to writing vocal lines in a recent interview with The Times: He repeats the words of the text over and over to learn its form and flow.
The resulting musical setting is clear and natural. Blanchard mixes sputtered spoken moments into vocal phrases that unfold in a jazz equivalent of the Italian arioso. He has a penchant for muffling those vocal lines with orchestral chords that hug them – or he often doubles the voices or writes counter-melodies with elongated lines for strings. (Additional orchestrations are attributed to Howard Drossin.)
Blanchard uses this charged lyrical style so persistently that passages run the risk of slipping into melodrama. This subject is more problematic at the Met than at St. Louis. In Missouri, the opera was performed in a 756-seat theater about one-fifth the size of the Met. Understandably, the creative team decided to adapt the work to the larger space. Some scenes have been expanded; Dance sequences have been added; the role of Billie, Charles’s mother, has been expanded significantly to create a real leading soprano role, sung here movingly by Latonia Moore.
Although the opera still avoids looking puffed up, these expanded arias and scenes sometimes lasted too long. I missed the intimacy and directness – the almost chamber orchestral clarity, with the words jumping off the stage – of the St. Louis production.
Yannick NÃ©zet-SÃ©guin, the music director of the Met, brought commitment and energy to the podium by highlighting the colors and character of the music, the nuances and the tinny brilliance. But since the strings of the orchestra gave everything for this lyric, the sound was often too lush. I wish NÃ©zet-SÃ©guin had encouraged more subtlety and restraint.
Nevertheless, âFeuerâ remains a fresh, touching work. You believe in these characters when you see scenes from their everyday lives, like when we see Billie and her coworkers in a chicken factory plucking feathers on a table filled with cadavers; or when the teenager Charles decides to be baptized in church to rid himself of the inner demons of sexual confusion. (As a result, he is visited by loneliness, which promises to be his significant other.)
James Robinson, who directed the St. Louis production, was joined by director and choreographer Camille A. Brown at the Met, making her the first black artist to direct a Met production. Brown created some breathtaking dance sequences, including a dream ballet in which teenage Charles sees visions of seductive, hugging men circling his bed and gets up to join them, terrified and bewitched at the same time. Act III begins with a long tap dance scene that stopped the show: Charles storms over to Kappa Alpha Psi, a black brotherhood, and 12 male dancers play a pounding and frenetic, but amazingly easygoing number.
Blanchard was fortunate to have Lemmons on staff. Her libretto is poetic, moving, sometimes grimly funny, always dramatically effective. Many lines that Blanchard put sensitively will stay with me, as if in a self-talk when the older Charles, repeating fate, sings: “I was once a boy of special grace”, a “dangerous existence” for a man of his Race. From his “lawless city” he adds, where everyone carried a gun, “I have shame in a holster around my waist.”
The replacement set by Allen Moyer – a kind of roughly hewn proscenium and a few other switching elements – is optically enhanced with projections by Greg Emetaz. Paul Tazewell’s costumes were beautifully simple and still reminded of the changing times and locations. The entire cast was excellent, including the clear tenor Chauncey Packer as crank, Billie’s misogynistic husband; serious bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as kind Uncle Paul, who welcomes Billie and her sons; and husky baritone Chris Kenney in the challenging role of Chester, the older cousin who molested Charles. The abuse scene is all the more powerful because it is not explicitly staged: you only see the cousins ââstanding motionless, while Char’es babies’ agonizing faces are shown in close-ups.
In the penultimate scene, Charles meets a lovely woman, Greta, with whom he immediately connects; he calls it his “fate”. (She, too, is played by Blue, Our Fate and Loneliness.) Charles trades in secrets and admits to the harassment he’s experienced; Greta then admits to having a boyfriend she’s committed to. Charles calls home dejected and learns from his mother that Chester has stopped by, leading back to the opening of the opera, when we see Charles ready to kill.
But when he reaches his mother’s house, Chester is gone. Instead, the opera ends with a poignant scene of wistful, soft music when Charles, overseen by Char’es Baby, returns to Billie, finally able to accept the maternal advice she always gave, avoid moving emotional baggage through Carrying life: “Sometimes you have to leave it on the street.”