BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — “Great Performances at the Met,” the series produced by the Metropolitan Opera in association with PBS, has been a primary way of bringing the best of the Metropolitan Opera into the homes of opera fans across the country. That continues at 9 p.m. April 1 with “Great Performances at the Met: Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”
The production from Grammy-winning jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard’s that is an adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir marks the Met’s first performance of an opera by a Black composer and its first production back in its theater following the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
This is only the second opera from Blanchard who is better known for his work in the jazz world. His connection to opera came at an early age through his father – an amateur baritone – who would play all of the best known operas in their home.
“Because I heard all those operas and the melodic lines and the structure of those operas really stuck with me, you know, the dramatic nature, you know, of ‘Turandot’ or ‘Carmen’ or any of those things, you know, really played a big role in how I see telling these stories in its form,” Blanchard says.
Featuring a libretto by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, the opera tells the story of a young man’s journey to overcome a life of trauma and hardship. James Robinson and Camille A. Brown co-direct this new staging, with Brown also choreographing, becoming the first Black director to create a mainstage Met production.
Blow has had a difficult time talking about how he feels when he sees his life story played out again on stage because it deals with such a traumatic period in his life. His reluctance to see the work comes from a concern it is not healthy for him to continue to relive this dark period.
“Part of me says that this is something that happened in my life and is the past. Both times I have been in the audience, it is very much in the present. I don’t think that’s healthy for me,” Blow says. “So I try to appreciate both what I did as a piece of literature, as literature, as an artistic creation that is telling a true story, but doing my best to elevate it so that it will be helpful to people.
“The only reason I ever wrote about it was I thought it would be helpful for other people who might be going through the same things and that I owed the world that because only I could write what happened to me. But I had to dig up something that was buried in order to do that.”
Even when Blow toured the country to promote his book, he would only read the more positive parts of his book to the audience. He had to face the story again when he was approached about making his story into an opera.
He says he faced the story one more time and then had to let it die again.
“As a person, just as a person, separate from what people might think is an honor of having your life on stage, I look at it and try to appreciate it as a piece of art that this amazing team of people has created. I enjoy it for the art,” Blow says. “It is also a traumatic thing that I can’t – it’s hard to say, ‘oh, I’m so thrilled about.’
“I am thrilled for the creative team that they have done something amazing. I am also thrilled that there are people who will go to see it for whom it will do what I hope the book would do for people, which is that it will spark something in you.”
Blanchard was in complete agreement with Blow as to why the creation of the opera was so important. It was never just the chance to stage a major musical production or the grandeur of opera. It was all about creating something that touched people.
Blanchard says, “It was really just about helping souls and helping people heal. That’s really the ultimate goal of why we enter into art anyway, at least the reason why I have become an artist, is to help people get through these tough times.
“I know what art and music has done for me and my life, and I want to be able to create something to do the same thing for others.”
Baritone Will Liverman stars as Charles alongside soprano Angel Blue as Destiny/Loneliness/Greta with soprano Latonia Moore as Billie and Walter Russell III as Char’es-Baby. Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald hosts.
The broadcast is part of season 16 of “Great Performances at the Met” that started in February and will continue through November.