With his world premiere “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” Terence Blanchard breaks new ground with the depiction of blackness he brings to the opera stage.
Elements of the African-Americans experience are played out in a manner that connects the community with the genre like never before as Blanchard and acclaimed filmmaker turned librettist Kasi Lemmons set a defining period of author and New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s life to classical music.
A co-commission with Jazz St. Louis that is the latest of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ New Works, Bold Voices series, the opera opened Saturday, June 15 and continues through June 30 with a handful of performances.
“Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” adapted from Blow’s memoir of the same name, explains the emotional turmoil of a boy as the opera describes “with a peculiar grace.” Born and raised in the small northern Louisiana town of Gibsland, Char’es-Baby is the youngest of Billie’s five sons – none of whom seem to have any interest in him tagging along in their lives. Noticeably bright, his intellect goes mostly uncultivated early in his life. There are more pressing matters – namely keeping a family of five growing boys fed, clothed and sheltered. His days are spent tending to the family land while in the care of Uncle Paul, his mother Billie’s brother. Most evenings he makes an unsuccessful bid for Billie’s undivided attention. Her love is apparent and unwavering, but she is either too exhausted or frustrated to actively engage. When her shift of plucking and chopping chickens at a nearby factory for an unlivable wage is over, the work of managing a household begins. She is fighting her own emotional battle with a husband who more often than not pays no mind to the covenant of their marriage or his responsibilities as a father. But Billie is committed to providing for her boys and making a better life for herself and setting an example for her sons to follow.
The complicated family dynamics leave 7-year-old Char’es-Baby vulnerable to be preyed upon by a family member. He swallows his childhood trauma and retreats inward, mainly because he feels like an afterthought or oversight in his family. “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” sees Charles as he faces the truth of his pain and attempts to reconcile with the parts of his seven year-old self he buried long ago as a method of survival.
While making appearances to promote the opera’s opening, Blanchard pointed out that “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” is the first opera with an entirely black cast since George Gershwin debuted “Porgy and Bess” in 1935. But with his second opera, Blanchard accomplishes a feat more compelling than giving black classical singers an opportunity to perform together on stage. In the telling of Charles’ story, Blanchard and Lemmons create space for a first person exploration of the black perspective, framed by uniquely black sensibilities and institutions. The black church, a historically black college and even black nightlife is illustrated through a college party and a trip to an after-hours establishment – commonly referred to in North Louisiana as a “hole in the wall.”
Seeing a gospel choir, a Kappa Alpha Psi step performance, a group of Grambling State University students engage in a perfectly executed electric slide during an HBCU party and a troupe of modern dancers of color conjures up a sense of black pride. Meanwhile, driving home the point that the Blow family challenges stem from a lack of resources and opportunities and not the absence of love or sense of community can lend to perspective shifts toward universal understanding for traditional opera patrons.
Karen Slack’s endearing yet powerful presence as the opera’s matriarch is stunning to watch – particularly her ability to embody every nuance of the typical black mother and instantly transition into a rich, pure classical musical singing voice.The talented cadre of performers entrusted with the story deliver with care and grace. Char’es-Baby is played by the gifted youngster Jeremy Denis with perfect pitch and precociousness. As Charles, Davone Tines is equally passionate and tortured.
In helming the production, James Robinson had tasks that require skill, vision and creativity – particularly the nonlinear manner in which Charles and Char’es-Baby engaged with each other for the sake of healing. There was also the challenge of presenting the sensitive subject matter that is at the root of Charles’ suffering. Both could have proved problematic for a director of lesser capacities.
Julia Bullock lives up to her reputation as opera music’s next big star with her personification of Destiny and Loneliness. She is haunting and brilliant while justifying the purpose and intent of Lemmons’ decision to create a physical presence for the powerful forces that are never far from Charles as he attempts to work through the pain and confusion that are residuals of his childhood abuse.
Chaz’men Williams-Ali doesn’t have the bellowing vibrato or vocal charisma of a classical singer, but his voice has plenty of soul. He heaps on the charm necessary to convey Spinner Blow’s womanizing, smooth operator ways and connect audiences with his portrayal.
Markel Reed makes the most of a minimal role with his performance of Charles’ cousin Chester. The same can be said of Michael Redding in the role of Uncle Paul. Like Reed and Redding, each member of the ensemble shines when given the spotlight in a myriad of roles.
Blanchard blends musical genres to lend to situations and timeline within the production – which further expressed the depth of blackness found within “Fire Shut Up In My Bones.” There were a few moments where the understated jazz and R&B instrumentation was drowned out by the big voices, but overall the genre-bending orchestrations were well-rewarded risks.
From a production standpoint, Allen Moyer’s set closely resembled the shotgun houses with sun-bleached wood beyond the tall grass along Interstate 20. James Schuette’s costumes perfectly reflect the fashion of the early 1980s – early 1990s.
The storyline of “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” is a departure from the over-the-top death, drama and intrigue typically seen in non-comedic operas, but that’s not to say that the production is anti-climactic. Quite the opposite is true when considering the authentically told story gives space for resolution and healing – a right that many young black men are not afforded.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis’ presentation of Terence Blanchard’s world premiere “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” continues through June 30 at the Loretto-Hilton, 130 Edgar Rd. in Webster Groves. For additional information or to purchase tickets, visit www.opera-stl.org or call (314) 961-0644.