See the fire in a crowded theater

Being back at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last Wednesday had a surreal quality to it. Masked faces scanned the balconies through binoculars. The sound of the warming orchestra mingled with the chatter of the audience. And under the cacophony, the boom-ta-ta of a battery.

Yes, a battery. The Met made its historic comeback after 18 months of pandemic shutdown with Terence Blanchard Fire shut up in my bones. This is the Met’s first opera by a black composer – a fact expressed in both celebration and embarrassment. (It will air simultaneously, live in HD, on Saturday, October 23.)

Blanchard, jazz trumpeter, has composed over 60 film scores, frequently collaborating with director Spike Lee. Fire calls for a jazz quartet in addition to the orchestra, which adds a rhythmic base and a popular touch. I was delighted to see that the Met audience seemed younger and more diverse than usual.

Baritone Will Liverman, center, sings the role of Charles.

Kasi Lemmons’ libretto is based on the memoir of journalist Charles M. Blow of the same name. It starts in medias res. Charles, sung by Will Liverman, hurtles down a Louisiana side road with a gun in the passenger seat of his car. He’s about to kill his cousin, Chester, whose role was artfully sung by Benjamin Taylor, replacing Chris Kenney the night I attended. The allegorical character Destiny, hauntingly sung by Angel Blue, draws her into a flashback to her childhood.

We learn that the family of Char’es-Baby, seven, are poor in soil (literally – there is a scene where Charles and his brothers describe eating dirt). Her mother, Billie, works in a chicken processing plant; her father, Spinner, is a womanizer. Char’es-Baby, played by the lovable Walter Russell III, needs attention, which makes him especially vulnerable when Chester sexually assaults him.

In this flashback, Char’es-Baby sings mainly in octaves with his adult counterpart. The effect could have been dramatic, but due to the soprano boys’ natural tendency to be high-pitched, it ends up being a bit distracting.

Blanchard’s strength lies in his orchestration – mixing the idioms of jazz and classical – rather than his vocal lines, which are sometimes, literally, almost one note. But a scene in the Chicken Factory has some really catchy music, as well as the “big old ass and really tight pussy” line, which I guess is a first on the Met stage. Despite months of layoff, the orchestra is in good shape and Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts with aplomb.

The second act opens with a ballet sequence: men in skin-colored outfits swell and bend like trees. During the aria “Peculiar Grace” by Liverman, the haunting melody is echoed by the cello. He later returns when Charles goes to college at Grambling State University. In a scene where Charles tries to purge his inner demons through baptism, Blanchard makes good use of an energetic gospel choir.

A highlight of Fire Shut Up in My Bones is the brotherhood scene in act three. (Photos Ken Howard)

The third act includes a hazing scene involving the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. The a capella dance the brothers perform is in some ways out of place in opera, but extremely impressive. During the performance I attended, the dance received the loudest applause of the evening.

Charles has a relationship with Greta, also sung by Angel Blue, which ends after he tells her about his history of abuse and she admits she’s seeing someone else. When Charles calls home to hear his mother’s voice, Chester is there, provoking the murderous plan that opens the opera. But eventually, after listening to Destiny and his young self, Charles is able to “leave it all behind.”

Program notes and New York Times critics ignore the odd elements of the libretto, which are more explicit in the book. Blow is bisexual and talks candid about it in Fire shut up in my bones. In the first act of the opera, the community sees Char’es-Baby as somewhat different. He is called “a boy of special grace”. Chester calls him a “punk,” which is an insult. The ballet sequences, which turn out to be Charles’ dreams, are homoerotic. He later sings “strange, half-formed desires” that appear to him during the night.

There may be a bisexual erasure going on here. Charles’s relationship in opera is with women – first with Evelyn, sung by Brittany Renee, with whom he loses his virginity in the second act, and then with Greta. And the link between homosexuality and perversion is problematic. Blow writes in his book: “Abusers don’t necessarily make children different that way, but rather, they are devilishly good at detecting this kind of difference, often before the child can see it in themselves. ‘articulate and accept it. this. It is possible that Chester saw a light in me and it moved the darkness in him.

A force of Fire shut up in my bones opera is that the plot can take on different meanings. It’s about race, sexuality, trauma and coming of age.

Met again

The event: Fire shut up in my bones live in HD

The weather: Saturday October 23, 12:55 p.m.

The place: Wellfleet Harbor Actor Theater, 2357 Route 6

The cost: $ 15 to $ 30 on

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