The Met Will Stage Its First Opera by a Black Composer

The Met Will Stage Its First Opera by a Black Composer


In its 136-year history, the Metropolitan Opera has never staged an opera by a black composer. But that will finally change: The company said on Thursday that it would present “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” by the composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, in a coming season.

“He’s a brilliant composer,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Gelb made the announcement as the Met prepares to open its season on Monday with a new production of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” The “Porgy” staging has brought renewed attention to the fact that the most-performed opera about the African-American experience was written by an all-white creative team, and has also served as a reminder of the historical dearth of opportunities for opera composers of color.

Mr. Gelb said that he had been in talks for months with Opera Theater of St. Louis, which gave the premiere of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” in June, about bringing its production to New York. The director in St. Louis was James Robinson, who also staged the Met’s new “Porgy.”

“I wish my father was alive,” Mr. Blanchard said in a telephone interview. “He was an avid opera fanatic.”

“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is based on a memoir by Charles Blow, an Opinion columnist for The New York Times, with a libretto by the writer and director Kasi Lemmons. In his review in The Times, Anthony Tommasini praised it as “subtly powerful.”

“Vocal lines flow from lyrical wistfulness to snappy declamations; dense big-band sonorities in the orchestra segue into lighter passages backed by a jazz rhythm section,” Mr. Tommasini wrote. “And there are rousing evocations of gospel choruses at church, blues and, during a fraternity party, a rhythmic chorus of spoken words, finger snapping and dance steps.”

Many details remain to be worked out, including whether the Met will present the work at its 3,800-seat opera house at Lincoln Center, or as part of its new initiative to collaborate with other presenters, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Public Theater. But Mr. Gelb said that it could come to New York as soon as the 2021-22 season, with support from the Ford Foundation, and that the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, would conduct it.

Mr. Gelb and Mr. Nézet-Séguin have been working to bring more contemporary — and diverse — voices to the Met. Last year the company announced that for the first time it was commissioning operas by women — a Missy Mazzoli work based on George Saunders’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” and a Jeanine Tesori opera, “Grounded,” based on a George Brant play. In its history the Met has performed just two operas by female composers: Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin,” in 2016, and Ethel M. Smyth’s “Der Wald,” in 1903, both of which were originally produced elsewhere.

“Hopefully,” Mr. Gelb said, “there will be many more African-American composers whose work we feature.’’



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