In a widely anticipated season opening, the first production by a black composer staged by The Metropolitan Opera in its 138-year history received its premiere on Monday night. Happening in a period of heightened public awareness of the devastating impacts of systemic racism and of the lack of diversity in the arts, this event should not be considered as just a statement that The Met is trying to make. Terence Blanchard’s second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is a powerful and eloquent work deserving to be presented by any opera house.

Walter Russell III (Char’es-Baby) and Will Liverman (Charles)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

A jazz trumpeter and composer, widely acknowledged for his soundtracks for Spike Lee movies, Blanchard's composition synthesises music from many sources, from jazz and R&B to gospel choruses and earlier operatic melodramas. Occasionally just doubling the vocal lines, the orchestral writing is not necessarily complex, but certainly colourful. Melodies are often touchingly simple and effective, especially during soul-searching monologues. The symbiosis between text and music works unexpectedly well. Conducting with his trademark energy, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, brought out many of the score’s intricate details, supporting the singers well and his orchestra shone in the several orchestral interludes.

Will Liverman (Charles) and Angel Blue (Greta)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Initially staged in St Louis in 2019, Fire has a libretto by Kasi Lemmons, based on a memoir by Charles Blow (an opinion columnist for The New York Times) about his traumatic childhood in a small Louisiana town. The story describes a family of five boys, a philandering father, a proud, hard-working, and maybe not very affectionate mother. There is constant emotional turmoil and, most importantly, there is Charles’ struggle to come to terms with a vaguely described, but not less damaging episode of sexual abuse. In time, neither religious services, love affairs, nor college fraternity parties can alleviate his pain. The opera is comprised of a series of flashbacks captured when Charles, grabbing a revolver, contemplates the choice between killing Chester, his vicious cousin, or taking his mother’s advice saying that “sometimes you gotta leave it in the road”.

Chris Kenney (Chester), Will Liverman (Charles) and Walter Russell III (Char'es-Baby)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

In many scenes, Charles’ persona is split between the young college student, interpreted with increased confidence by Will Liverman, and Char’es-Baby, the innocent kid full of “peculiar grace” (the endearing, suave-voiced Walter Russell III). The vocal and physical contrast between the two incarnations of the main character, often singing in unison, is one of the high points of both the opera and its staging. Liverman’s role is significantly expanded in the second and third acts, the singer, owner of a not very flexible baritone, portraying well Charles’ self-loathing and anger. Fire also introduces two female characters, Destiny and Loneliness, haunting Charles’ thoughts. Melodious soprano Angel Blue sang both roles (as she did a third one – Gerda, Charles’ love interest, unable to commit to a relationship with him). She easily switched between all these incarnations from lament to disdain to excitement to insidiousness, her voice always confident.

Will Liverman (Charles) and Latonia Moore (Billie)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

The opera could have been a series of jeremiads. To avoid the monotony, the creators have, between scenes narrating Charles’ infelicitous fate, inserted several humorous moments describing the bar where his father (lively tenor Chauncey Packer) finds his solace or the chicken factory where Billie, his mother, works. In the latter role, soprano Latonia Moore was the performance’s centre of gravity, portraying a complex character, embodying Blanchard’s varied musical idiom and switching with ease from rhythmical passages to demanding legatos. There were also dance sequences depicting Charles’ nightly visions of appealing phantoms or a rowdy, frenetic fraternity ceremony, masterly choreographed by Camille A Brown. To unify the different tableaux, directors Brown and James Robinson and set designer Allen Moyer came up with a pair of huge, unequal frames placed in different positions for each number, supporting the cast’s actions and well-integrated into several unobtrusive video projections (Greg Emetaz) bathing the entire stage and clarifying the surroundings. Nevertheless, the stage was often crowded with chorus and singers in secondary roles (dressed in the simple and suggestive costumes signed by Paul Tazewell).

Fire Shut Up in My Bones
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

In the second act, Charles’ uncle, Paul (an under-utilised Ryan Speedo Green) voices a sentence – “You gotta disturb the earth to make it grow” – that can be perceived as a metaphorical paraphrase for what this opera represents. Fire potentially marks a new beginning for The Met. If the enthusiastic, young and much-more-varied-than-usual public that attended the premiere shows up for regular opera performances, that would be a great gain for the organisation. In the meantime, General Manager Peter Gelb will continue commissioning new works from a diverse list of composers. As Terence Blanchard recently remarked referring about this remarkable work, “The key to all this for me is, I don’t want to be the token; I want to be the turnkey.”