“A boy of peculiar grace”. Experience Jazz musician, Terence Blanchard’s opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, for the first time and that phrase will live with you forever. In five simple words and a few bars of haunting, lyrical, music, Blanchard and his librettist, Kasi Lemmons, capture the essence of author Charles M. Blow’s harrowing autobiographical memoir, upon which this opera, now on its second season Met outing, is based.

It is proof that Blanchard, who came late in life to opera – well, 60 is a bit late – with many triumphs in his more familiar world of jazz, and film scores to his credit, has the opera gene too. 

The operatic canon is swollen with hardy annual aria unforgettables that cause aficionados to sniff the air and paw the ground. “Là ci darem la mano”, Mozart, Don Giovanni; “Nessun Dorma”, Puccini, Turandot;, “Da-hoi-di-di-hoi-toi-ho!”, pretty much every damned opera written by Wagner.

Now, you can add to that roll of honour “A Boy of Peculiar Grace”, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Terence Blanchard. The aria is showstoppingly good. 

It is possible to sit through many fine contemporary operas by internationally acclaimed composers and not find a “catch” like “Grace” to imprint the work permanently on the psyche. Blanchard, maybe by chance, has pulled off that trick.

I must have seen and enjoyed John Adams’ Dr Atomic half a dozen times, but no earworm nags. Blanchard, a bit of a Johnny come lately to the genre, doesn’t stop at “Peculiar Grace”. He conjures up two more. “Leave it in the Road” and “Bend don’t Break” are the two others. 

Calm down readers of a “Keep the countryside clean” persuasion. “Leave it in the Road” refers to life’s burdens, not that knackered brown velour sofa reeking of old curries.

Blanchard has extensive experience in writing film scores, so also understands how to drive plot forward and create a compelling on-stage narrative. Fire is blessed with directors, James Robinson and Camille A. Brown – also choreographer – who capture the inner turmoil of the abused and conflicted Charles, firstly as the kid Char’es Baby, latterly the 20-year-old Charles. This is a piece of theatre that delivers a coherent storyline, commands constant attention and whose characters evoke empathy.

The opera opens at the end of the story. The audience encounters adult Charles, driving down a Louisiana backroad with a gun on the passenger seat, determined to exact vengeance from his cousin, Chester. Why? What’s happened? 

Lots. Chester raped him when he was a vulnerable and uncertain 7-year-old. Did that act define Char’es Baby’s sexuality? The action is then a series of flashbacks, a narrative of how it came to this. 

Blow is a brave man, unafraid of telling his story of abuse frankly, as it happened. Also confronting his own sexual ambivalence. Is it his fault? Is there “fault” at all? 

The opera focuses on Char’es Baby’s attempts to find love, at home and with his peers, the abuse he encounters, being snubbed by his siblings, his initial sexual ambiguity and finally resolves when he accepts his homosexual nature. Leaves his conflicts “in the road”.

The efforts of his well-meaning but flawed mother, Billie, separated from her serially adulterous husband, Spinner, a man to whom a lamppost might seem an attractive amorous proposition on a Saturday night on the razz, to protect her unusual son and provide him with an education fail. Still, on she goes, with a heart of gold. 

A full synopsis of the action is here.

Blanchard’s music lends each character a compelling voice. Even Spinner, who at one point returns unrepentant and persuades Billie to allow him to casually have his way with her, has an appealing rascality.

Charles is followed through the action by three characters “in his head” Loneliness and Destiny, who reinforce musically his intense emotions and Greta, who in Act III establishes beyond doubt that Charles is bisexual, in an explicit manner that must have given Intimacy Director, Doug Scholz-Carlson, several seizures.  

Charles’ three “muses” are all sung by Minnesota soprano, Brittany Renee, who brought great individuality to each character. She also covered the role of Micaela in the Met’s Carmen this season.

The plot is grounded in the culture of Louisiana by skilful use of gospel musical themes, all written by Blanchard, not lazily clipped from a chapel hymnal. The contributions of southern African American fraternities and sororities are acknowledged in a spectacular step dance by Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity at Charles’ college, where he has bravely struck out on his own, Grambling State University. 

Step back and think of the culturally rooted operas of Janáček Tchaikovsky, Bartók. Blanchard’s score is mightily enhanced by these references. 

Humour is embraced. Mother Billie’s fury with Spinner is often comical. Even the climax moment at the end of the opera, when Charles turns up armed, intent on murdering the rapist Chester – will he use that gun we saw at curtain up – is leavened by a phone call in which it’s made clear Chester – at heart a feardy cat – has high tailed it out of town on hearing Charles is in the “hood”. 

There are other clever operatic “tricks”. Char’es Baby and Charles often sing together during flashbacks. The sense of a total experience is created. The whole piece shouts “old pro” rather than the opera rookie Blanchard is.

His vocal writing requires the whole cast to have a comfort level with the methods of jazz and gospel singing. I’m told that in rehearsals Blanchard was relaxed with singers who found the score difficult. “Can we bring it up a semitone?” “Sure’”.

Nowadays composers are often sticklers for their original scores. Misplace that semiquaver during a half hour series of repeat phrases in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten and it’s rapped knuckles all round. I’m told Blanchard is sufficiently self-confident to return to the good old days when Handel and Mozart would rewrite music on the run to accommodate the vocal needs of the diva of the day. 

Virginian bass-baritone, Ryan Speedo Green, Charles, has over 100 Met appearances on his scorecard and is a deserved house favourite. He delivered the ambiguity of his character with sensitivity and filled the auditorium with that wonderful voice. His ultimate declamation to “leave it in the road”, blew the roof off. 

It would be unfair to wish that Ethan Joseph, the 12-year-old treble masquerading as a seasoned performer of 40, who sang Char’es Baby should never grow up. When he does, we will be the losers. He lit the stage and shouldered a challenging acting role, especially in Act I when he was being mocked by his siblings. 

This was Joseph’s second Met appearance. He sang Little Emile in Blanchard’s Champion. Impossible to imagine what a kid must think when a packed 3,500 Met audience explodes with delight at the end of a testing performance. He was onstage, singing and acting for most of the show. He deserved it all. 

Latonia Moore, the Texan soprano who sang Billie (mum) is a Met familiar – Rose in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Emelda Griffith in Champion, Musetta in La Bohème, title role in Aida, Serena in Porgy and Bess and Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly

Does Moore haunt the Lincoln Center? If so, it is with serious intent. She played the role of failing mother with tragic realism. 

Shout out to the four-piece Orchestra Rhythm Met orchestra section. Blanchard’s jazz heritage was subtly woven through the score, giving the piece his distinctive voice. And to choreographer Camille A. Brown who, clad her dancers in Kappa Alpha Psi’s, red frat kit, had them stomp their hearts out in perfect synchroneity, bringing them to a halt in a heavy breathing lather of sweat.

Post-performance I marvelled at their stamina. I was told the toughest bit was standing stock still at the end of the sequence for minutes as the audience roared, whistled, returned the stomps and generally behaved as crazily as any audience can, before the dancers were released offstage. Real razzle at its best. 

Conductor Evan Rogister is in demand internationally and was in town from Washington DC where he is principal conductor of Washington National Opera. He delivered colour and vigour to Blanchard’s score and wove the jazz passages into the sound perfectly. 

Blanchard may draw on gospel music tradition, but this is not a preachy opera. Nor does he point easy fingers of blame. Fire sets out the Blow story and the audience judges. The jury is not rigged. 

If Blanchard pitches up this autumn at London’s Royal Ballet and Opera – note the new childishly clumsy and confusing rebranding of London’s formerly separate Royal Ballet and Royal Opera – he will find he is being aped in his choice of theme. Festen, the 24/25 season opener – opera not ballet. 

It’s about a disturbing tale of abuse and intergenerational conflict. Sound familiar? Mark-Anthony Carnage – oops, “Turnage”, sorry – is the composer, Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame provides the libretto. I was thinking of Turnage’s Greek, at Boston Lyric a few seasons ago. Carnage on a grand scale.

Now that Blanchard has made his mark with Champion, which I liked less, and Fire, a literal step change in the right direction, I hope more operas are on his mind. Blanchard speaks for today and audiences are listening. 

Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, played a risky poker hand bringing operas by a jazz composer with no track record in the medium to the Met stage. Result? Packed and enthusiastic houses. I give you Fire Shut Up In my Bones, Blanchard’s opera of peculiar grace. 

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