Interview: Terence Blanchard Addresses the Human Condition in His Two Operas
The composer and jazz musician discusses Fire Shut Up in My Bones, airing on PBS tonight, and his upcoming Champion at the Met.
Last fall, the Metropolitan Opera kicked off its 2021-22 season with the New York premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, a new opera from composer Terence Blanchard (his second) and librettist Kasi Lemmons, based on Charles M. Blow's memoir about his coming-of-age, including being sexually molested.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones was an epochal production for the Met, being its first-ever production of an opera by a Black composer in its nearly 140-year history. Blanchard's score is as remarkable for its stylistic variety — encompassing blues, jazz, gospel, and standard operatic arias — as it is for its expressiveness, and Lemmons matches it with an eloquent libretto. The work came to vivid life in the hands of director James Robinson, who helmed its world premiere at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2019, and NYC-based choreographer Camille A. Brown, who is directing the upcoming Broadway revival of For Colored Girls.
No surprise, then, that the Met has already announced a new production of Blanchard's first opera, Champion, about the tragic life of bisexual boxer Emile Griffith, next season. For those who missed Fire Shut Up in My Bones, PBS is offering an opportunity to catch up tonight, airing a filmed live version as part of its series Great Performances at the Met.
To celebrate this television airing, TheaterMania spoke to Blanchard about his musical inspirations, his experiences in the operatic medium after devoting most of his career to jazz and film music (most notably his many collaborations with filmmaker Spike Lee), and his involvement in the Met production itself.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Had you thought about doing opera at all before James Robinson at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis approached you to write what eventually became Champion?
I had heard a lot of opera growing up because of my father [who was an opera singer], and periodically I would listen to certain operas just for compositional curiosity. But no, I really hadn't thought about writing an opera.
Were there any operas or composers in particular whom you gravitated toward in those early years?
Puccini was [a big one]. There's something about his melodic development, his harmonic progressions, and his orchestrations that I really related to. His orchestrations were especially fascinating to me when listening to, like, La Bohème or Turandot — when he chose to support a vocalist and when he chose to leave the vocalist out there on their own.
One thing I was really struck by with Fire Shut Up in My Bones is the variety of musical styles in it. How did you go about figuring out what kind of style served each moment?
I feel like the story tells me what it needs. When I look at the libretto and I start to really get a feel for it, it dictates things to me, whether it's going to be rhythmic, more melodic, thick with orchestration, or light and minimalist.
What was it about these subjects — the life of Emile Griffith for Champion and Charles M. Blow's coming-of-age for Fire Shut Up in My Bones — that made you think they were worth turning into operas?
With Emile Griffith, it was about how this person achieved the highest level of achievement in his sport, and he couldn't celebrate that with someone that he loved openly. And then with Charles's story, it was being "other," being different, and then being molested as a kid, but coming through all that to be the brilliant writer that he is.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones struck me as being in large part about how Charles feels out of step with conventional notions of masculinity at the time. It seems like there's something similar going on with Champion, considering that there is an aria in it called "What Makes a Man a Man."
I understand where you're going, but both stories I wanted to do for different reasons. I think the similarity between them is that they all deal with the human condition and how we tend to treat people differently because they may be different. So "What Makes a Man a Man" deals with the questioning that Emile was going through about his own sexuality [during a more sexually repressive time]. Charles also had questions about his own manhood, but it's based on the fact that he was molested, and that he always felt a little different from the other kids in his community.
What was the process like working with librettist Kasi Lemmons, known primarily for her film acting and directing work, for Fire Shut Up in My Bones?
Charles, Kasi, and myself, [the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis] flew us to St. Louis and we sat down and had a powwow about what the opera should be. Charles was very generous in giving up his time and information, a lot of information that wasn't in the book. Once we had those discussions, Kasi wrote the libretto, and once she got it down to a size that we could manage, I started to write the music.
How involved were you behind the scenes of the Met production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones?
I was there for rehearsal from day one and always had input in terms of what was going on musically. Because the dancers were working in another room, [Camille A. Brown] would bring me in and ask my opinion about certain things. I added little things here and there, but for the most part, I thought everybody was doing a brilliant job.
The step dance number Camille choreographed that opens Act 3 was one of the most exhilarating things I saw in a theater last year.
That's the thing I love about this opera: It has elements for everybody involved. There are the traditional elements of opera for those who love that. And then [there are] all of these other societal norms that are placed in the opera, allowing it to reach out to a [broader] public, because people are seeing themselves and their culture on the stage in a way that they haven't before.