New York Times columnist and author Charles Blow was the first to break the news that his memoir, “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” would be coming to the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis stage. Three years ago, when the adaptation was merely Terence Blanchard’s idea for an opera that OTSL said yes to, Blow took to Facebook Live to share with his social media community.
“I’m super excited about working with these people,” Blow said with a smile that stretched across the screen of his live feed.
This week, his story – as told by Blanchard and librettist Kasi Lemmons and directed by James Robinson – will make its world premiere on the OTSL stage at the Loretto-Hilton.
“I’m from a small town in Louisiana – Gibsland, Louisiana,” Blow said, gathering his thoughts amidst the overwhelming emotion that Blanchard thought enough of his book to build an opera around it and that OTSL thought enough of Blanchard’s idea to say yes. It was almost too much for him to process. While sharing the news, he went on to tell his own story about how he never imagined the life he has made for himself.
The opera – co-commissioned by Jazz St. Louis and starring Davone Tines, Karen Slack, St. Louis’ own Julia Bullock and Chaz-men Williams-Ali – opens Saturday, June 15 at the Loretto-Hilton. “Fire” will be conducted by William Long.
“Taking up Charles Blow’s memoir – this incredibly powerful story of abuse and of race and of one man’s journey to find forgiveness and self-acceptance – is the heart of what great opera can be,” said Andrew Jorgensen, general director of OTSL. “This is the whole premise of our ‘Bold Works, New Voices’ series. This is the fifth opera commissioned in that series of works.”
“Fire” sets Blow’s story of resilience and triumph as the youngest of five growing up in a small north Louisiana town with a willful mother determined to see her family succeed.
Blanchard can’t wait for the world to see what he and Lemmons have been up to in translating the book to opera.
“It’s been a wild journey,” Blanchard said. “The workshopping portion of it is a godsend, because you can actually have people sing the lines and you can kind of hear how they work and give you a clue of how it’s going to work overall.”
His debut opera “Champion” premiered as a commission of OTSL’s “Bold Works, New Voices” series back in 2013. After it received critical acclaim and sold-out performances in St. Louis, San Francisco and at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., he is ready to show and prove with “Fire.”
“You don’t want the first one to seem like a fluke,” Blanchard said.
“Fire” is the first libretto for award-winning filmmaker Kasi Lemmons.
“I kind of always wanted to do one,” Lemmons said. “Adapting is a specific art, and his book was not apparent as far as how to adapt it. I know one thing that is always an ‘in’ for me in the process, and that’s a wonderful character.”
She found that “in” through Charles, specifically his boyhood experiences as “Charles Baby.”
“I wrote from what I thought his struggles were and how to make that sing,” Lemmons said. “How to make that musical.”
Blanchard knew early on in reading Blow’s book that it was something that he needed to adapt into an opera, partly because setting of Louisiana was familiar to the six-time Grammy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated New Orleans native, but mostly because of the triumphant story of Blow facing his hurt head on in order to move beyond the traumatic experiences of his childhood.
“Charles needs to be championed because he has been extremely giving and generous with this story,” Blanchard said. “Hopefully he’s giving license for so many others to come out of the shadows. So many people are suffering in silence – and it’s striking the level of confidence he has in talking about it. It’s almost as if he realizes that it has to be a part of his healing.”
Blanchard is confident that through his healing, Blow is going to heal many other people.
“He’s already done it with the book itself,” Blanchard said, “but now even more so with this particular piece.”
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis’ presentation of “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” will run from June 15-30 at The Loretto Hilton, 130 Edgar Rd. in Webster Groves, Mo. For a full performance schedule and more information on the show, visit www.opera-stl.org. or call (314) 961-0644.