After 138 Years, a Black Composer Arrives at the Met

In 1919, William Grant Still was in his 20s — many years from the eminence he would later enjoy as the widely acknowledged “dean” of Black American composers.

But he had already begun to write operas, and he boldly approached the nation’s most important company: the Metropolitan Opera in New York. We have no evidence he got an answer.

Two decades later, Still was far more established, with his “Afro-American Symphony” widely performed. In 1935, he sent the Met “Blue Steel,” its music infused with jazz and spirituals. “Not worthy of consideration,” a company official wrote in an internal submissions ledger.

Then Still wrote another opera, “Troubled Island,” about the Haitian revolution, with a libretto by the poet Langston Hughes. “The Metropolitan was our first target, logically enough,” he later recalled. That, too, was dismissed.

“It would be a mere waste of time,” a 1942 entry in that submissions ledger went, “to go into details about this opera which is an immature product of two dilettantes.”

The Met, the country’s largest performing arts institution, opened in 1883, and in its 138 years has put on some 300 titles. Not one has been by a Black composer.

The baritone Will Liverman stars in Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which premiered at Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2019.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Until now. Closed for a year and a half by the pandemic and rocked by the nationwide uprising for racial justice, the company will reopen on Monday with “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” by Terence Blanchard, a jazz trumpeter and composer best known for scoring a host of Spike Lee films.

“It’s a phenomenal honor, and it’s an overwhelming thing,” Blanchard, 59, said after a recent rehearsal. “But at the same time it’s bittersweet. I was just in St. Louis and heard the William Grant Still piece.” (Still’s one-act “Highway 1, U.S.A.” was done there this summer.) “And I’m like, OK, he was around. I’m honored, but I’m not the first qualified person to be here, that’s for sure.”

Still and other Black composers asked and asked, submitted and submitted. But finally it was the Met — and its general manager, Peter Gelb — contacting Blanchard, rather than the other way around.

“I knew that there was a possibility, but I was like, Nah, I don’t see it happening,” Blanchard recalled. “And then all of a sudden Peter called me, and he goes, ‘Hey man, I think I want to bring “Fire” to the Met.’ It’s one of those things where, you know, while you’re on the call you’re trying to be cool. There’s a whole sense of disbelief. Is this really happening? Is this how this happens? Just that quick? I get a phone call, and then my opera’s going to the Met?”

His father was a passionate amateur opera singer, but Blanchard never thought he would compose in the art form.Credit…Wayne Lawrence for The New York Times

That was in 2019, following the work’s premiere at Opera Theater of St. Louis. The Met had committed to bringing “Fire” — based on the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s memoir of his turbulent upbringing in Louisiana, with a libretto by the writer, director and actress Kasi Lemmons — to New York.

But at the time it wasn’t clear whether the Met would present it at its 3,800-seat theater at Lincoln Center, or as part of its initiative to collaborate with other presenters, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “Fire” certainly wasn’t planned as a season opener, let alone as the symbol of the company’s resurrection after the longest closure in its history.

Given opera’s glacial planning cycles, Gelb was waiting to present it until fall 2023, in a slot that has lately been given to contemporary works. (Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” takes that spot in November.) But demands for greater diversity in the arts convinced him it would be an appropriately grand and meaningful gesture to bring the Met back with the piece.

“Without doubt the Black Lives Matter movement had a big impact, at a time when theaters and opera companies were being looked at under a microscope in terms of their sense of social responsibility,” Gelb said in an interview. “It felt like it was important for the Met to respond.”

“Fire” was originally planned to come to the Met in fall 2023, but the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests convinced the company it should reopen with the piece.Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

Gelb, once the head of Sony Classical, had worked with Blanchard on three albums around the turn of the 21st century. “He was obviously a prodigious talent,” Gelb said. “But I had no idea that he was going to be writing an opera for the Met.”

Blanchard never thought of himself as an opera composer, either, but the art form runs deep in his ears. As a young man, his father fell under the sway of Osceola Blanchet, a high school chemistry teacher in New Orleans who evangelized for classical music on the side.

“He was adamant about teaching Black kids opera,” said Blanchard, whose father ended up selling insurance but remained a passionate amateur singer who tried to get his son — already obsessed with jazz artists like Clifford Brown — to listen to “Carmen” and “La Bohème.”

“I came home and my dad would be sitting at the piano, playing the tenor part and singing the baritone part,” he said. “I was like, this dude is nuts. And then all of a sudden this opportunity comes and all that music starts popping back in my head.”

“That’s the reason my music has a certain type of melodic quality to it,” he added. “It stems from that. The modern opera stuff hasn’t had that effect on me, the Minimalist stuff. I hearken back to those other periods, just because it’s been ingrained in my brain since I’m a little kid.”

As it expanded to fill the vast Met, the protagonist’s mother (sung by the commanding soprano Latonia Moore) was given more big moments in the second act.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“Fire” does echo Puccini and Bizet. But its unabashedly emotive tale of family troubles, sexual abuse, self-discovery and self-acceptance also recalls the savvily sturdy mid-20th-century operas of Robert Ward (“The Crucible”), Douglas Moore (“The Ballad of Baby Doe”) and Carlisle Floyd (“Susannah”).

Its lushness and lyricism, a sophisticated yet accessible clarity, has long been evident in Blanchard’s jazz and film work, too. “A Tale of God’s Will,” his 2007 album inspired by his score for “When the Levees Broke,” Lee’s HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina, broods with aria-intense emotion.

It was that intimate yet larger-than-life quality that appealed to James Robinson, the co-director of “Fire.” When Robinson joined Opera Theater of St. Louis as its artistic director in 2009, there were vague plans to collaborate with a jazz artist, perhaps on a small-scale production outside the company’s regular summer season.

“I knew his film work,” Robinson recalled, “and I was a big fan of ‘A Tale of God’s Will.’ I sensed that there was something inherently dramatic about his music.”

As the project expanded from an off-season trial to a mainstage commission, discussions first circled around Katrina. But Blanchard demurred; that tragedy still felt too close. He and the company settled on the story of the closeted gay boxer Emile Griffith; “Champion” premiered in 2013 and was well received, though the work sometimes felt, even to Blanchard, more like a procession of numbers than an integrated whole.

It was also his first time composing for voices. “When you write for cello, you write for cello,” he said. “But no baritone is the same; no tenor is the same. And all those voices, where do they bloom in their registers? So being able to control that and manipulate it, that’s been a huge learning curve.”

Liverman and the soprano Angel Blue, who sings several characters, including the personified qualities of Destiny and Loneliness.Credit…Photographs by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Conducted at the Met by the company’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, “Fire” feels like a step forward, with a freer, more cinematic structure, more subtle orchestrations (a collaboration with Howard Drossin) and more comfortable vocal writing. “‘Champion’ was an excellent first effort, but ‘Fire’ is a more mature work,” Gelb said. “I think it’s more nuanced. It’s not as big a story, in the sense that it seems a less likely candidate for grand opera than ‘Champion,’ but I think it feels like a bigger work.”

Lemmons’s libretto poignantly personifies the qualities of Destiny and Loneliness (both sung at the Met by the soprano Angel Blue), among other poetic riffs on Blow’s book — encouraging the dreaminess in Blanchard’s music. The early drafts of “Champion” came across stiffly when the singers did the notes precisely as written, but Blanchard has worked at conveying in notation some of the looseness and groove he’s searching for.

“When I was first learning it, I was getting all the pitches and rhythms correct,” said the baritone Will Liverman, who stars as Charles. “But it wasn’t until I lived with the music, and heard the orchestra underneath, that I realized there is a lot of flexibility in it. He’s used to writing something and having a jazz musician take it and do their own thing. Terence said to us from the start that a lot of us grew up with church music and R&B. We’ve been taught as classical singers to get rid of it, and he wants to bring it back.”

Blanchard, holding up his finger, at a rehearsal of the jazz quartet that joins the orchestra, a modern equivalent of a Baroque continuo.Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

Jazz technique is the foundation of Blanchard’s composing style, which begins with charting the rhythms of the text and a series of chord progressions, from which the melodies emerge. (One result is a notably more natural setting of English than in many contemporary operas.) Even with a jazz quartet in the pit alongside the orchestra — Blanchard’s answer to a Baroque continuo — there’s little classic swing in the mix.

“I didn’t want people to come in and think they were going to hear the Basie band,” Blanchard said.

Reviewing the St. Louis premiere for The Times, Anthony Tommasini wrote, “Restless vocal lines shift from plaintive lyrical phrases, to sputtered outbursts, to a style that seems a jazz equivalent of Italianate arioso.” Otto Kahn, an influential Met board chairman, wrote in 1925 that he had tried to interest popular jazz eminences like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin in writing operas for the company. In its audience-pleasing variety — expansive solos mingle with foot-tapping dances — “Fire” evokes what might have come had he succeeded.

But the creative team agreed that some tweaks were needed after St. Louis. “The piece has a lot of scenes; it’s very cinematic,” Robinson said. “What we learned is that it really needed time in certain places on either side of the scene change — more time to settle, so it’s not just a series of scenes together.”

A raucous fraternity-hazing step routine is one of the expanded dance sequences overseen by Camille A. Brown, co-director with James Robinson and the first Black director of a mainstage Met production.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Charles’s loving but struggling mother (the commanding soprano Latonia Moore) was given more big moments in the second act. Some lines that were spoken in St. Louis are now sung. And the piece has grown to fit the vast Met. The role of the chorus has expanded, as have some arresting dance sequences, including a dream ballet of gay desire and a raucous fraternity-hazing step routine. Camille A. Brown, who was the choreographer for Robinson’s staging of “Porgy and Bess” at the Met in 2019, has been brought on as his partner, making her the first Black director of a mainstage Met production.

The company’s neglect of Black composers, it should be said, is part and parcel of its general neglect of living creators — especially American ones — for much of its history. While its theater at Lincoln Center was inaugurated in 1966 with a world premiere, Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” new operas were perceived as box-office poison and arrived rarely.

“The key to all this for me is, I don’t want to be the token,” Blanchard said. “I want to be the turnkey.”Credit…Wayne Lawrence for The New York Times

They weren’t a priority for James Levine, who presided over only a few during his four-decade artistic reign. The revival elsewhere of Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha,” in the 1970s, missed the company. With New York City Opera developing a reputation for presenting new music — in 1949, it finally gave the premiere of Still’s “Troubled Island” — the Met may well have considered itself off the hook. And while “Porgy” was written by white artists, it contractually requires a Black cast, and could have seemed to check the “Black opera” box — for anyone who cared back then — after its Met premiere in 1985.

“It didn’t seem like the Met was a possibility,” said Anthony Davis, whose “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” was heard at City Opera in 1986.

The approach to contemporary work has changed significantly under Gelb, who was appointed in 2006. “When I first came to the Met, one of the first composers I approached about writing an opera was Wynton Marsalis,” Gelb said. “And he still promises to write it; we talk about it every year or so.”

This month the company announced that its second work by a Black composer would follow swiftly: Davis’s “X” will have its Met premiere in fall 2023, in the slot originally planned for “Fire.” Valerie Coleman, Jessie Montgomery and Joel Thompson are among the composers in the company’s dual commissioning program with Lincoln Center Theater.

The future seems brighter than the past, however absurd the belatedness. Gelb, who has offered sustained commitments to favored composers like John Adams, Thomas Adès and Philip Glass, said he’d like to plan more of Davis’s works, which include “Amistad” and “The Central Park Five,” the Pulitzer winner for music last year. And Blanchard is already mulling his evolution as an opera composer.

“If I do another one, I’d want to do a fictional story,” he said. “Something that has an ethnic base, where I could bring in some other types of instruments. Even in this read-through, I’m not listening to the notes. I’m listening for, How can I make this better next time?”

“The key to all this for me is, I don’t want to be the token,” he added. “I want to be the turnkey.”

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