When I learned that Fairfield University would be collaborating with the Metropolitan Opera to screen some of their incredible live performances, I knew that I had to seize the opportunity to see a performance for myself. I was fortunate enough to attend a brilliant live screening of the Met’s performance of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” just this past weekend.
Composed by Terence Blanchard, six-time Grammy award-winning and Oscar-nominated composer and jazz musician, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is a touching adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir of the same title. In its opening season, this opera defined a moment in history as the Met’s first performance of an opera by a Black composer. Conductor, Yaninick Nézet-Séguin, claims in a backstage interview that this opera is exactly what the Met currently needs. He explains that the Met already has incredible sets, musicians and performers. However, it is the representation in the cast that makes “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” so special and necessary for today’s stage.
Composer Terence Blanchard masterfully combines jazz, gospel and classical styles of music to tell the moving story of a Black man growing up in rural Louisiana. Dealing with themes such as lack of childhood affection, sexual abuse, racial inequality and toxic masuline standards, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is sure to strike an emotional chord with its audience members.
Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts did an excellent job in simulating the atmosphere of the Metropolitan Opera House. As I walked into the theater and took my seat, I was greeted with the exciting sounds of a chattering audience and the tuning of instruments. The screen on stage displayed images of audience members taking their seats in the real opera house. I may as well have been in New York City!
Though I am sure nothing can compare to experiencing this incredible work live at the Metropolitan Opera House, there were many aspects of Fairfield’s live screening that I found to be quite special. One aspect that I found particularly interesting about this screening was the inclusion of backstage interviews. As an audience, we were able to witness live interviews from important cast members, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and even composer Terence Blanchard. These are the people who are involved in the production of this groundbreaking work. They are the people who are bringing Charles M. Blow’s story to life on the stage. To hear their insight alongside the performance was an extremely unique experience and one that I would not have found in a live performance.
I loved the feeling as if I were backstage with the actors, dancers and producers. I appreciated witnessing the emotion on the performers’ faces as the camera focused in closely on a scene. I loved learning what it takes to put on a performance so grand. All of these aspects included in the live screening are aspects that I would not have experienced had I seen this performance live. Though I do not mean to diminish the experience of a live performance in any way, I believe that there were many benefits to this exclusive screening. Now that I am familiar with this work, I can only hope that I am fortunate enough to experience it live at the Met one day.
As I was viewing this performance, I was in constant awe of the way in which Blanchard conveyed such emotion through his music. In a backstage interview, performers Latonia Moore and Angel Blue, explain that although the music of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” includes both gospel and jazz influences, they both recognize a great deal of Puccini’s classic verismo style of opera as well. Italian for “realism,” verismo is defined by a story rooted in real life, the music matching the drama or the passion of the action on the stage. This is exactly what Blanchard does. His music tells Charles’ heartbreaking story.
There were moments when the combination of the music and the storytelling was truly overwhelming. As I sat back in my seat, viewing the performance, I was brought close to tears on more than one occasion. In Charles’ singing, I could hear the desperation of a young boy who craves love and attention. In the song “Leave it in the Road,” I could sense the pain and longing of Billie, Charles’ mother, as she dreams of a better life and chooses to move on from the hurt of an unfaithful husband. I could feel the utter devastation portrayed in the song, “Peculiar Grace,” as seven-year-old Charles is stripped of his childhood innocence.
Perhaps one of the most emotional moments of the entire opera comes when Charles, played by Will Liverman, voices his anger toward the end of the performance. In the third and final act, a grown-up Charles reflects upon the traumatic event of his childhood that he has carried with him throughout his life. After being sexually abused by his older cousin, Chester, at the age of seven, Charles has lived his life in fear, shame and self-doubt. Every emotion Charles has felt as a result of this traumatic experience is captured in the final scenes of the opera. His anger is felt as we see him waving a gun, intense music accompanying him as he sings “I was seven years old” and “someone must bleed.” He was just a child and he resents Chester for causing him such pain. In this scene of built-up tension, we witness Charles lower the gun, his anger fading away as he realizes this is not who he is. The curtain closes as Charles seeks out his mother, ending with the heart-wrenching line, “I have something to tell you.”
I felt such satisfaction in this emotional closing to “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”. Through the combination of incredible composition and performing, I felt completely immersed and invested in Charles’ story and emotional journey. To see him end in such a vulnerable state, a state in which he is ready to speak about what had happened to him as a child, what he had held in for so long, was truly heartwarming.
I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to experience this moving performance of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” right here on Fairfield’s campus. From the start, I was captivated by the story, the music and the incredible performers. I can only imagine how much more spectacular the live performance of this opera is and I hope that I can one day experience it live at the Met.