Terence Blanchard tells ‘our story’ at the Metropolitan Opera

Terence Blanchard leads the orchestra while scoring Spike Lee's film 'Da 5 Bloods' in 2020.Courtesy of the artist

September 24, 2021

Terence Blanchard has received a lot of buzz recently, and for good reason. His Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which opens the Metropolitan Opera’s season on Monday, will be the first opera written by a Black American composer to be staged by that esteemed New York organization. Furthermore, the cast, librettist and author of the book from which the story came are all Black. While the history of Black composers being denied the privilege of having their works showcased at the Met is another topic to consider, there is a more important event here, Blanchard says, the telling of “our” story. 

First, while the Grammy-winning composer says it is an overwhelming honor for his work to be showcased this way, he has mixed emotions. William Grant Still, Hale Smith, Roger Dickerson, Howard Swanson and many other great Black composers weren't even considered being in this position during their lifetimes. In a New York Times article about Blanchard, Still and his librettist, Langston Hughes, were called dilettantes by the Met in 1942, which Blanchard thought was enormously disrespectful.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones Opera
The 2019 world premiere of the work from the St. Louis Opera.
Courtesy of St. Louis Opera

“I can't let those people down,” Blanchard says. “I'm proud of not just for myself, but of [choreographer] Camille Brown, [director] James Robinson, [soprano] Angel Blue and all the people that are involved with bringing [librettist] Kasi Lemmon’s words to life.”

The telling of the Black American story is the telling of America, he says.

“Our stories don't exist in a vacuum. Our stories are universal, just like anybody else. We want to be loved and respected. We hurt, and we were abused like other people. But throughout that abuse, some people rise to the occasion.” 

In this case, the person who rose to the occasion was Charles Blow, the author of Fire Shut Up in My Bones. The book is a memoir of Blow coming to terms with his painful past of dealing with abuse. The universality of the story attracted Blanchard. One could change all the characters, he says, and the story would still be the same, just presented through a different lens.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones
A memoir by Charles Blow.
Mariner Books

Blanchard said that it wasn't until after the opera’s St. Louis premiere in 2019 that he noticed it had an all-Black cast. It just wasn't on his mind because he was telling Blow's story. For him, the most important thing was to show the isolation of being different, the persecution Blow had from his own family and friends, and the people who wanted him to be something other than what he is.

Blanchard said his hope with the Met’s staging of the opera is not only to open up the hearts and minds of audience members, but also to open the door for more people of color. 

“I don’t want to be a token; I want to be a turnkey,” he said about his work being featured at the Met.

While others have asked if he thinks his opera will inspire more Black youth to enter classical music and opera, Blanchard fears that what happened to Stills and Hughes will continue to happen today.

“For generations, we've never gotten these opportunities, and people never spoke about it,” he said. “ People assume Black classical artists don't exist, but they do and have serious passion for the art form. It's incredible to think that we have all of these young, serious, highly skilled voices and nobody knows who they are — not even the people in opera. There are a lot of well-intentioned people, but the effects of missing the mark is just the same as those who want to keep the status quo.”

Blanchard’s opening at the Met is a small step in the right direction.

As he says his old trumpet teacher always told him: “You have to make an effort to just keep pace with the way the world is evolving — because it's going to evolve with you or without you. So you may as well get on board.”

The Metropolitan Opera’s season opens with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones on Monday, Sept. 27. YourClassical MPR will broadcast an encore of the performance Jan. 8.