Tale of artistic progress in honor of black history month



By Marilyn Delk

The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2021-2022 season with Fire Shut Up in My Bones, a work composed by Terence Blanchard based on a memoir by journalist Charles Blow; interesting — but the most intriguing component underlying this announcement is that real progress is being made, slow as that progress may have been. This production is the first opera written by a black composer ever staged at the Met in its 138 years of existence!

Blanchard expressed his feelings about this disturbing fact by saying, “The arts are supposed to be things that bring us together, that throw away all of those notions of bigotry and intolerance, right? So it breaks my heart to think that William Grant Still approached the Met, and was turned away.” Over a 20-year span, William Grant Still, known as the dean of African American composers, submitted three operas to the Met, all deemed not suitable for performance by the company.

Still was the first African American composer to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television, yet his work was not suitable for our nation’s most prestigious opera company! He composed nearly 200 works, including five symphonies, four ballets, nine operas, over 30 choral works, plus art songs, chamber music, and works for solo instruments; when he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936, he became the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra in a performance of his own work. He received three Guggenheim Fellowships in music composition, was awarded honorary doctorates from Oberlin College, Wilberforce University, Howard University, and several more prestigious institutions, and in 1976 his Los Angeles home was designated a Historic Cultural Monument — but the Met found his work amateurish and uninteresting. Hmmm — could there be a racial component to this?

However, in this case, the Met reached out to black musician and composer Terence Blanchard about presenting his opera. Blanchard was raised in a New Orleans home filled with opera, but discovered his passion for jazz after starting to play trumpet at age nine; his highly successful and diverse career as a jazz trumpeter and composer has won acclaim from music lovers around the world, with his work earning numerous prestigious awards. When considering subject matter for his first opera, Blanchard says that he was drawn to Charles Blow’s autobiography, explaining that he related to “the notion of being isolated in your own community.”

Charles Blow grew up in a poor, dysfunctional household in a small Louisiana town, earned a scholarship to Grambling University, and is now a highly respected op-ed columnist for The New York Times. His autobiography’s title, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, comes from a Biblical quote in the book of Jeremiah: “Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.” Blanchard expertly translated the emotions expressed in the book into music that stirs emotions in listeners of all races and ethnic origins.

One of Blow’s sentences which especially moved Blanchard provides a high point in the opera: “There once was a boy of peculiar grace.” Blanchard’s lyric then goes on to say that this is “a dangerous existence for a man of my race,” and “The South is no place for a boy of peculiar grace.” The song ends on a hopeful note, as the boy puts his questions aside and moves to a brighter future.

The Met’s first presentation of an opera written by a black composer was warmly received, selling out all performances which were often interrupted by standing ovations while winning high critical acclaim; the production has been praised as being unlike any other opera. Blanchard says, “It’s time for us to move on… . I’m trying to find the sound for my generation.” And the Met has said that it would like to commission the black composer to write another opera. So — after 138 years, a venerable elite institution is progressing toward a more inclusive future.

Marilyn Delk is the former executive director of the Darke County Center for the Arts and can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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