Opera Review: FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES (The Met Opera)

Post image for Opera Review: FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES (The Met Opera)

by Paola Bellu on April 11, 2024

in Music,Theater-New York


Seven-time Grammy Award–winning trumpeter, pianist, and composer Terence Blanchard has created more than 40 film scores (and diverse works in different music genres) but composing operas is definitely one of the brightest jewels in his crown. Before I get into the ‘what’ and ‘who-is-who’, I need to say that Fire Shut Up in My Bones — which opened Monday at The Met — has an important score worth seeing live, especially with Evan Rogister conducting the exquisite orchestra. The psychology of the main character dominates the dramatic nature of the music, as in Puccini’s operas, but with jazz, blues, gospel, and big band, all flawlessly intertwined with classical operatic realism; it is a rare musical jewel.

Brittany Renee as Loneliness, Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby, and Ryan Speedo Green as Charles
Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby and Ryan Speedo Green as Charles

Based on Charles M. Blow’s autobiography, the story is about belonging and healing old wounds. Charles, bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, is driving down a back road, en route to an important vendetta, crying, yelling, with a gun in the passenger seat. It’s a powerful beginning; behind him we see Destiny, fierce soprano Brittany Renee (who also plays Loneliness and Greta), an entity that encourages Charles’s self-pity and desperation, confirming his worst fears. Both Destiny and Loneliness haunt him and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the two.

Brittany Renee as Destiny, Ryan Speedo Green as Charles,
Latonia Moore as Billie, and Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby
Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby, Latonia Moore as Billie,
Brittany Renee as Destiny, and Ryan Speedo Green as Charles

We arrive where the pain started, in Gibsland, a rural town in Louisiana where slavery’s legacy has left only poverty, guns, and violence. It’s a flashback; older and younger Charles are both on stage and sing sometimes in unison. Char’es-Baby is 7, the youngest and more sensitive of five boys, played by treble Ethan Joseph who added a glistening tone to the score. “I was once a boy of peculiar grace,” he sings with older Charles. His mother Billie (soprano Latonia Moore) works all day in a chicken factory; his father Spinner (Chauncey Packer) wastes her money, is a womanizer, and constantly breaks her heart. She resorts more than once to a gun to scare him out of the house in front of her children.

Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby with Cast
Ryan Speedo Green as Charles

Char’es-Baby is lonely and out of place in a family and community too busy trying to stay alive to pay attention, where the only people who care are his tired mother and overworked uncle Paul (Kevin Short). His older brothers avoid him, making fun of his good-boy attitude and “soft-talk” whenever they are around, so he becomes the perfect victim for unscrupulous cousin Chester (Daniel Rich), who easily finds a way to abuse him. In the first act, it was difficult to understand all the lyrics partly because a large theater like The Met Opera isn’t friendly to whispered internal monologues and aria parlante, partly because the first act of the libretto, by talented writer, actor, and director Kasi Lemmons, is a bit verbose and difficult to sing (the libretto is in English, but thank goodness for the supertitles on a tiny screen projected from the back of the seat in front of you). The music does not always emerge from the words, but it gets a lot better in the second and third acts.

Ethan Joseph as Char'es-Baby, Latonia Moore as Billie,
Brittany Renee as Destiny, and Ryan Speedo Green as Charles
Latonia Moore as Billie with Cast

Teenage Charles needs to overcome the cycle of violence that surrounds him and the rage that is eating him up. The dream ballet that opens the second act gives us an idea of the confusion that reigns in his brain, a guilty gay craving that announces his bisexuality, another reality for him impossible to admit and completely unaccepted in Gibsland. He tries church where a pastor (Blake Denson) is offering baptisms to wipe off sins, and dating a beautiful girl, Evelyn (soprano Kearstin Piper Brown), but both together are not enough to stop the fire that burns inside: he needs to leave. Green plays his role with nobility and strength; the act ends with a riveting aria by Moore on her own sacrifices, in fear and hope of what may come.

Ryan Speedo Green as Charles with cast
Ryan Speedo Green as Charles and Brittany Renee as Greta

In the third act, a rambunctious fraternity step dance welcomes us to Grambling State University. The sequence is the only step dance in opera, I think, and pumped the audience with such intensity and finesse that I thought patrons would give it a standing ovation and interrupt the show. It was one of many memorable moments in the evening. At a fraternity party, Charles meets Greta (Brittany Renee), falls in love, and he finds the courage to share his secret. But Greta is already engaged, and his mother, on the phone, lets him know his cousin Chester has come back to visit; a recipe for disaster that takes us back to the introduction, on the road to Gibsland, heading toward his revenge against his cousin.

A scene from Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones

I will not tell you how it ends but a lot more talent needs to be mentioned: co-director Camille A. Brown’s choreography is brilliant, dreamy in the ballet and extraordinary in the step-dance; set design by Allen Moyer is whimsical and effective working together with lulling projections by Greg Emetaz and precise light design by Christopher Akerlind; costume designer Paul Tazewell draws out the soul of the characters, giving them the right colors and forms; with Brown, co-directors James Robinson made the three-plus hours fly by. Most of all, the music is phenomenal in both composition and rendition, an experiment that feels immediately like a new norm for opera.

photos by Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Fire Shut Up in My Bones
The Metropolitan Opera, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza
co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, LA Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago
ends on May 2, 2024
for tickets, call 212.362.2000 or visit The Met

Leave a Comment