A young Black man rages by the side of the road, aims a pistol, and bellows a gangster line: “Prepare to die, motherfucker.” Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which relaunched the Metropolitan Opera on Monday, opens in a blaze of fury, the orchestra seething with such force that it threatens to overpower the story before it even begins. Immediately, we understand two things: (1) We will spend the next few hours learning what’s drawn Charles to the lip of murder, and (2) he won’t deliver on his threat. We know this because Charles’s last name is Blow, and the author of the memoir that inspired the opera is a columnist at the New York Times, not a convict on death row. To their immense credit, librettist Kasi Lemmons and composer Terence Blanchard have fashioned this journey toward a foregone conclusion into a bracing and humane story shot through with wit, tenderness, and melodrama.
Like its Met premiere, Fire is both festive and tense. On opening night, gowns and glittering masks (plus vaccine and ID checks) covered the weird fact of so many people crushing together after such a long, gloomy silence. Onstage, the tale of a sad, fragile boy in the unforgiving South broke out into a wild collegiate step dance, an ecstatic church baptism, a blues number in a lowdown bar, and some testosterone-charged joshing from a quartet of older brothers. The joy of experiencing live opera again came mixed with the unmissable reality that the Met has always relied on an exclusionary tradition, and one new opera won’t change that.
This is the first opera by a Black composer to reach the Met and the second (after George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) to feature an all-Black cast. Two years after the world premiere at the Opera Theater of St. Louis, the company moved up its planned production so that, in reopening, it could demonstrate its social justice bona fides and its alertness to the issues of our day. Yet at a time when activists are taking aim at ossified institutions — the police, the Senate, the Times — Fire makes a persuasive case for the endurance of an old-fashioned genre. Even an opera neophyte can’t miss those voices rising on thermals of melody, lush chords seasoned with piquant sevenths and ninths, stage-pounding spectacle, choral numbers — the whole toolbox of emotional manipulation that Met loyalists know and crave. Blanchard and Lemmons haven’t blown up the genre or bent it to new purpose or smuggled anything subversive into a temple of tradition. For all its newsworthiness, Fire Shut Up in My Bones is an old-fashioned opera opera.
The subject is raw: A 7-year-old boy is raped by an older cousin and spends the next dozen years wrestling with the fallout. This is just the kind of situation that has always given opera its narrative fuel. Sexual coercion, incest, ancient grievances, revenge, shame, self-destructive rage, harrowing self-doubt — these are the staples of the genre. Fire gives us a fraternity hazing, which seems spicily current until you remember that is virtually the whole plot of The Magic Flute. Crumbs from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess land on Blanchard’s five-line staff. The passions are vintage verismo.
Blanchard has written only one other opera (Champion), but as a jazzman and film composer — he’s a regular collaborator of Spike Lee’s — he has spent 30 years telling complicated stories in music. Unlike many celebrated opera composers over several centuries, Blanchard doesn’t demand that we wade through swampy filler before getting to the two-minute number; he knows how to hold an audience’s attention, whatever the mood or idiom. Not many composers outside Hollywood can glide quite so effortlessly from raunchy banter to plaintive confessional. Fewer still can segue from a smoky late-night seduction to the end of the affair in a handful of minutes and leave us with the aftertaste of heartbreak. The Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, plunges elbow-deep into the rich soil of Blanchard’s orchestral writing — the jaunty percussion, the polychrome chords, the jazzy pops of brass — though, in their enthusiasm, composer and conductor sometimes seem to have forgotten about the singers, who struggle to be heard over all the engaging churn.
That occasional murkiness doesn’t spill over into the production, co-directed by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, which deals handily with flashbacks, emotional swerves, and subtle changes in the family’s economic status. Allen Moyer’s set consists of a rotating box that morphs from a tumbledown shack into a graceful farmhouse, a roadside bar, and a college dorm. Projected photographs fill in the humid Louisiana foliage, rendered mostly in black and white. The color is saved for Paul Tazewell’s costumes, a riot of ’70s fashions, thrift-store mishmashes, and button-down preppiness.
What feels freshest about the opera is not what it has to say about race but its explorations of modern masculinity. We see Charles as a young boy trying to absorb the available lessons of manliness. He assaults the earth with a hoe, flaunts his miniature biceps, watches his father philander and his brothers scuffle. But he is a sensitive, scrawny kid — a “boy with peculiar grace,” as we are informed many, many times — and these models don’t enter his bloodstream. He endures his brothers’ bullying; he craves nothing more than a long embrace from his mom.
The men in his life, menacing or unreliable, make fleeting appearances. His life’s, and the opera’s, true anchors are two female presences. His mother, Billie (sung with outsize verve by Latonia Moore), represents his home and his history. She is strong, mercurial, exhausted, sexy, distracted, and determined, and Moore grabs every opportunity to deliver each of those nuances. In a stroke of supreme casting, Angel Blue sings the role of Destiny, who is not a real woman but an apparition, a malevolent goddess in white, luring Charles to a fate of violence and defeat. Later she reappears as Greta, a flesh-and-blood love interest, and Blue’s lyricism makes it clear just how inextricably sex and anguish are tangled in Charles’s head.
One of Blanchard’s most effective strokes is to have young Charles (sung with astonishing aplomb and musicality by the 13-year-old showbiz veteran Walter Russell III) shadowed by his future self. Will Liverman sings the older Charles, sometimes in unison with the child, and we know from his carriage and his beefy baritone that the terrors and tremors will ease. Liverman is an elegant singer, precise in his phrasing, timbre, and diction. We see him stagger, fume, writhe, and endure, but it’s hard to believe that he’s really losing control. He’s a new star, and the work he carries moves from tragedy to possibility instead of the other way around. The gun that makes an appearance right after the overture isn’t going to kill — because if it did, this opera would never have made it to the Met.