Metropolitan Opera returns to stage with first opera by Black composer

NEW YORK — “We bend, we don’t break. We sway!” sings the chorus in the second act of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”

That is how much of the audience of about 4,000 in the Metropolitan Opera felt as they watched Monday night’ landmark performance, the first staged work in the house since March 2020 and the first by a Black composer in the long history of a company that launched in 1883.

With many of the women wearing evening gowns and jewels and a large percentage of the men in black tie and even a few in white tie, tails and top hats, people greeted each other to celebrate their return to Lincoln Center after an absence they never imagined.

After a historic gap of 566 days, the country’s largest performing-arts organization had resumed staged presentations in the start of the season scheduled to run until June 11. The return attracted a far more diverse audience than usually attends the Met and was simulcast live to video screens in Times Square and Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park.

More:Metropolitan Opera skips season for first time due to coronavirus pandemic

There was a minute ovation for the orchestra at the start, even before “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung with many a shimmering high note. After the performance was completed, there was nine minutes more of applause for Kasi Lemmons and the librettist Kasi Lammons, as well as Charles M. Blow (New York Times opinion columnist, whose 2014 memoir was adapted to the opera).

In this photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, the audience stands for the national anthem before the performance of Terence Blanchard's "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," which opened the Metropolitan Opera's 2021-2022 season.

Blanchard, a jazz composer and trumpeter aged 59, was delighted with the evening. He is also from Louisiana. It is a disturbing tale about child molestation in the segregated Northern Louisiana of 1970s. The story is beautifully written with subtle nuances of color and shade.

“Fire” This opera premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2019. It was also brought to the Met in co-production. The Lyric Opera of Chicago will perform it in March, and Los Angeles Opera will be performing it in a future season. (The Met’s Oct. 23 matinee will broadcast to all movie theaters in the world.

This was Blanchard’s second opera after 2013′s “Champion,” about boxer Emile Griffith, and the music is most colorful and moving in orchestral parts.

Blanchard and Lemmons condense a largely descriptive book to key moments in Blow’s memoir: growing up the youngest of five children, the assault by a cousin Chester, his baptism, brutal hazing by a Grambling fraternity and the search for love with first Evelyn and later Greta. The audience’s biggest response was for the dancing fraternity brothers, who stopped the show.

An all-Black cast included soprano Latonia Moore as Charles’ doting mother Billie, soprano Angel Blue in the endearing triple roles of Destiny, Loneliness and Greta and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as the menacing Uncle Paul.

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in a colorful shirt markedly different from the attire of predecessor James Levine, and chorus master Donald Palumbo brought out a vibrant performance. Nézet-Séguin, showing a commitment to contemporary work seldom seen at the Met, is to lead Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” in November.

James Robinson and Camille A. are the directors. Brown, who was also the choreographer, blocked a bright production featuring sets by Allen Moyer. They were dominated by two large squares which shifted on and off the stage.

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