It wasn’t all that long ago that many claimed American opera companies didn’t do enough new operas. One can only conclude that the gods looked upon such complaints with uncommon favor. Now we’re virtually awash in new operas, as the schedule for these next few months demonstrates. Most of the leading venues active in the summer—Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Festival, Cincinnati Opera, Saratoga Opera, Long Beach Opera—have a world premiere scheduled. The Saint Louis company recently launched theirs: Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, inspired by the New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s eponymous 2014 memoir about growing up black in a small, segregated Louisiana town.
It’s difficult to say what the current crop of new operas will bring, but this one turned out well. Blow’s memoir won attention for the absorbing way it charted the author’s rise from boyhood, as the youngest of five brothers, to an adult on the cusp of a major career. The libretto by Kasi Lemmons (perhaps best known for the 1998 film Eve’s Bayou) follows the memoirbybalancing the hardships posed by poverty and other disadvantages against both the support of a closely knit family (notwithstanding dysfunction and a father who walks out), especially a caring mother, and the institutional possibility, however slight, for advancement.
Like the memoir, the opera opens with a tension-building episode in which Blow, armed with his mother’s pistol, strikes out on an unidentified mission of revenge. The audience is left hanging about how the mission will turn out, but, before long, as the opera unfolds in one big flashback that depicts episodes from young Blow’s life while also charting his troubled emotional development, one realizes that the precipitating event was Blow’s sexual molestation as a seven-year-old by an older cousin.
Yet, shaped by other real-life events, the opera is a heartwarming, Horatio Alger–like tale in which adversity is overcome not so much by hard work as by self-realization and the good fortune that prevents superior skills from going unrecognized. Lemmons manages to skirt sentimentality by focusing on Blow’s emotional struggles and keeping the ending, while deeply touching, open.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones (which derives its title from the Book of Jeremiah) is the second opera byBlanchard, a past master of jazz whose first opera, Champion, about the boxer Emile Griffith, was given by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013. Although in many respects Fire, like its predecessor, is an “opera in jazz” (Blanchard’s preferred term for Champion), a surprising amount of its music does not sound particularly rooted in jazz, being closer to a post-Romantic idiom. This makes for an especially broad musical palette that works to the new opera’s advantage.
It’s a generalization to say this, but in Blanchard’s score, probing, reflective moments—especially those giving rise to significant solo pieces—tend to have rich and expressive (if not particularly tuneful) melodies for the singer. This is the case in Charles’s monologue after his baptism, in which he beseeches the Lord for relief against an unknown force that drags down his soul. Two characters that communicate with Charles’s subconscious, Destiny and Loneliness, have similarly pregnant melodies.
Jazz does tend to accompany both lighter moments, as when Charles’s brothers tease him about needing to get laid, and moments of stress, including Charles’s confrontation with his cousin Chester, when jagged, syncopated rhythms heighten the tension. Jazz patterns, in which, for example, brushed cymbals are heard on off-beats, often accompany passages that earlier composers might have set as recitative. Overall, the music seemed better matched to the drama than, if my memory serves, in Champion.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones moves swiftly in James Robinson’s strong staging. Allen Moyer’s abstract sets consist principally of two moving structures, one of which resembles a stage. Everything is colored in shifting shades of gray. Christopher Akerlind designed the lighting for a stage picture that proves strangely effective. Costumes designed by James Schuette are more conventional, but mesh with the décor.
Heading an all-black cast, the gifted bass-baritone Davóne Tines gives a searching, many-faceted portrayal of Charles. Julia Bullock, another compelling singer, brings a lucid, expressive soprano to Destiny and Loneliness, and she is also alluring as Charles’s lover, Greta, who devastates him by revealing her commitment to another man. Karen Slack sings strongly and soulfully as Charles’s mother, Billie, an employee in a chicken processing plant. The ten-year-old soprano Jeremy Denis is memorable as Young Charles, who averts bloodshed at the poignant close by giving his older incarnation innocent but sound advice. The conductor William Long brings out the vitality and energy of the score.