Opera Profile: ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones,’ Terence Blanchard’s Historic ‘Opera in Jazz’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Eric Woolsey)

On June 15, 2019, Terence Blanchard’s opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” premiered in full at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Described by the composer as “opera in jazz,” the work will be the first opera by a Black composer ever staged at the Metropolitan Opera.

The libretto by Kasi Lemmons is based on the memoir of New York Times journalist Charles Blow.

American jazz composer-trumpeter Blanchard, winner of six Grammy awards, infuses the opera with extended musical monologues, gospel choruses, and unpredictable melodies.

At its premiere, the opera was directed by James Robinson and conducted by William Long. The main role of Charles was created for two voices—a younger character sung by a treble as well as the college-aged Charles, in the original version performed by bass-baritone Davóne Tines. Julia Bullock, Karen Slack, Markel Reed, and Chaz’men Williams-Ali rounded out the supporting cast.

Short Plot Summary

“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” tackles ideas of sexual identity and masculinity as centered around a defining moment in Charles’ life.

At the age of seven, Charles was molested by an older cousin. The opera begins with its protagonist intending to kill his cousin in an act of revenge. Throughout the opera, Charles is visited by female spirits. The work is a reflection on Charles’ upbringing in Louisiana as well as the relationships with his family.

Later, Charles attends college, where he frequents campus parties and joins a fraternity. Charles meets Greta, a classmate he falls in love with. After cultivating a relationship, Charles confides in her.

At the conclusion of the opera, the scene of Charles’ molestation is revisited in a dance sequence. He decides not to go through with the murder.

Watch and Listen

Here are a few highlights from the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production.

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