By Rebecca Lentjes
During June, the SLSO skillfully wears another of its many hats, serving as the orchestra for Opera Theatre Saint Louis, a remarkable partnership now in its 42nd season. Alongside productions of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, is the world premiere of a new opera by composer Terence Blanchard, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Rebecca Lentjes spoke with the opera’s director, James Robinson, about this fascinating new work.
Audiences at Opera Theatre Saint Louis are no strangers to works that tackle tough yet vitally important subjects. The premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones this month will be another unmissable chapter in this tradition. Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s second opera performed by OTSL. After the success of Blanchard’s first opera, Champion, based on the life of gay boxer Emile Griffith, OTSL commissioned him to write a second, and Blanchard found himself taken with another real-life figure’s challenges concerning race, sexuality, and identity.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is based on American journalist Charles Blow’s memoir of the same title, which grapples with issues of violence, trauma, and race through the lens of Blow’s upbringing in an impoverished Louisiana town. Once Blanchard had settled on the topic for his second opera, he and Blow met with the filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, as well as James Robinson, OTSL Artistic Director. Although Blow does not consider himself a music or theater expert, he was excited by the idea and gave the team his blessing to adapt his story into opera form.
According to director James Robinson, “[Librettist Kasi Lemmons] was new to the opera business as well, but there was something about how Kasi adapts and writes things for the screen that worked for Terence because he has a cinematic approach to things.”
The process was somewhat unconventional within the opera world, with Lemmons more focused on poetic language and on translating details from Blow’s memoir into impressions that audience members will be able to identify with. Robinson describes Lemmons’ poetic, non-linear approach to the libretto as a “memory collage” that sucks its listeners into an emotional and psychological trajectory, rather than simply explaining a sequence of events in a chronological fashion.
“There’s a story there,” Robinson says, “but it’s a collage of memories and recollections and how it all adds up. That’s what makes it quite fresh and very different from most strictly narrative operas.”
The focus of Fire Shut Up in My Bones is not so much the specifics of Blow’s memoir, but rather how these specifics can be best communicated within a musical and dramatic realm.
“I’ve done operas that are based on all different sorts of things,” says Robinson, “books that are fairly well-known, or stories that are very ‘out there,’ but the goal is always the same: to be very clear, to make sure that composers and librettists are creating something that has dramatic integrity, and to find a way of using music to tell the story. You need a reason for the music to be there — and if there’s no reason for the music to be there, then chances are you don’t really have an opera.”
Blanchard’s music will be conducted by William Long and sung by Julia Bullock, Karen Slack, Davóne Tines, and Chaz’men Williams-Ali. Bullock, who hails from St. Louis, has been described in the Washington Post as “a luminous soprano [who] combines book smarts and artistic intelligence”, and has been the recipient of a slew of awards in recent years.
Tines, who will sing the role of Blow, is a Juilliard graduate devoting his career to the interpretation of new music, including works by Kaija Saariaho and Michael Schachter. He will also sing with the SLSO in February 2020 performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
These vocalists translate Blow’s memoir and Lemmons’ poetry into musical drama, a “memory collage” conveyed via sounds and images. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is sure to be unlike most experiences that opera-goers have had before, but Robinson is not worried about OTSL listeners feeling daunted by the intense subject matter or the brand-new music.
“Fortunately, at Opera Theatre we’ve always found our audiences to be incredibly enthusiastic about taking on new pieces, and they really love experiencing new works.”
Rather than avoiding subjects that deal with sensitive topics such as race, sexuality, and poverty in America, OTSL strives to tell bring these relevant — and highly relatable — stories to the stage.
“We’ve gone out of our way to make sure to be inclusive,” says Robinson. “We want to create works that speak to the African American community, that speak to different marginalized people within the community. Those are the most exciting projects, because we’ve always tried to do them in a meaningful way. We aren’t taking on easy subjects, but that’s the way you engage the community. That’s what’s exciting!”
The 2019 season of Opera Theatre Saint Louis runs from May 25 until June 30. Go to opera-stl.org for tickets and more information.
This article appeared in the June 2019 Playbill.