Anyone who thinks opera belongs in a museum or treats only the machinations of the elite needs to see “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”
The first opera by a Black composer to be performed by the Metropolitan Opera Company in its 138-year history was given its Met debut on Sept. 27.
A subsequent performance was telecast in high definition to around 300,000 people in 2,000 theaters in 66 countries.
I don’t use the word masterpiece lightly. Music and the other arts can be good without warranting that designation.
A masterpiece, from my perspective, is an artistic creation in which all its parts fit perfectly together. If not a masterpiece, “Fire Shut up in My Bones” is “masterful” in this regard.
How could the autobiography of a New York Times columnist provide the story for an opera? Yet, that is what Terence Blanchard, together with his librettist, Kasi Lemmons, has done to great effect with Charles M. Blow’s book by the same name.
Growing up in rural Mississippi, Blow tells of his African American childhood with four brothers, a peripatetic father and a community that viewed him as a sweet child who was not quite right.
Sexual abuse – a “game” perpetrated on him as a seven year old by a visiting cousin – left a scar which long resided with him, carrying with it a sense of guilt and secrecy heightened by a threat of death.
Music, many will assume, is the main thing one will take away from an opera. Fine music is here certainly – indeed, exceptional music – but powerful drama is the soul of this opera.
It is the agent that conveys the dehumanizing consequence of sexual abuse, the inner struggle between guilt and secrecy, the need for intimacy, the meaning of manhood, the concern for family advancement and the frightening uncertainty surrounding honesty – all this within the context of endemic racism in the American South.
What could speak more to our times?
I immediately recognized I was not hearing “words set to music,” but a melding of the two. Perhaps Wagner’s concept of music drama as a continuous flow, rather than a sequence of recitatives and arias and ensembles, fits this.
Blanchard’s music and the deft performance given by singers and conductor springs from the classical and jazz traditions. In hearing it, I felt connected both with contemporaneity and music rooted in our common past.
Not being an aficionado of modern dance, I will leave aside any comment about the dance sequence meant to portray the disturbed dreams of the sleeping protagonist – except to say that after a few minutes I “got the idea” and found it unnecessary to go longer.
Observing it as a nearly all African American cast brings to mind the event 66 years ago when Marian Anderson, then near the end of her career, became the first person of color to sing at the Met.
That a cast like the present one could now be singing in the high temple of American culture should not be lost on us!
The writing of the opera is many-layered, one expression taking on deeper meaning as it circles around to appear again. For example, the chorus’ description of the protagonist as a sweet child about whom something was not right is heard again and again in different settings.
The adult protagonist was paired with a boy soprano (the protagonist in childhood) between whom there was meaningful, but unspoken, dialogue.
The vocal passion so evident in the singing of two sopranos who had the leading female roles may be traced to their experience in the African American church.
One of these provided a “presence” throughout – at times, “Loneliness,” at others, “Destiny.” The other soprano, the mother, was portrayed as the embodiment of care, aspiration, strength and vulnerability.
The title phrase from the prophet Jeremiah (20:9) has long been a favorite of mine, describing the Divine word he had been given for his people but which he could not hold in.
The opera raises the question for me whether there are other truths that, no matter how painful, cannot be held in if one is to experience freedom.
Retired pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Edmondson previously served the First Baptist Church of Berkeley, California. He is an alumnus of Berkeley School of Theology and Regents Park College, Oxford University. Edmondson was a founding member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and in retirement taught in the College of Theology at Central Philippine University. He lives in Oakland, California.