Thursday night was the Chicago premiere of one of the most anticipated new operas in years. “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” with music by Terence Blanchard and libretto by Kasi Lemmons, based on the memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist and Black News Channel anchor Charles M. Blow, opened the Metropolitan Opera season last autumn and it is the closing opera of this season for Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The opera traces formative events in Blow’s life as a child in rural Louisiana, as seen by himself as a 20-year-old college student. In one of the many interesting touches, seven-year-old Charles and adult Charles are often on the stage at the same time, singing in octaves. There are also two characters, Destiny and Lonliness, who are not people but rather forces that act upon Charles, adding yet more depth.
Baritone Will Liverman, an alum of Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center for young opera artists, portrays adult Charles with a keen eye to detail. His rich baritone sound is well rounded and beautifully projected. Even with the knowledge and understanding he has developed as an adult, Liverman as Charles delivers the kind of confusion required early in the opera to make the later redemptive elements work well.
Soprano Latonia Moore makes her Lyric Opera debut as Billie, mother to Charles. She’s a pistol-packin’ mama, ready to threaten her no-good husband with the kind of violent outburst seen not only on stage at the Oscars. While she’s volatile and unpredictable, she is one of the anchors in Charles’s life. Moore sings with power and authority, and captures both the hard-scrabble exterior as well as the loving interior of a mother of five boys.
Soprano Brittany Renee sings three roles (all originally cast by Lyric for Jacqueline Echols): Destiny, Lonliness, and Greta, the last being a college girlfriend of Charles. Hers is a difficult task. Since the first two characters are not people, she employs spidery arm movements to imply that she is a kind of emotional storm swirling around Charles. She was often hard to hear over the orchestra and at times sounded pinched and constricted.
There are many great singers in smaller roles. Tenor Chauncey Packer is splendid as Billie’s cheating husband who cadges booze money out of her with empty promises. Baritone Reginald Smith Jr. is marvelous as Uncle Paul, one of the few truly good people in the life of young Charles. His voice is as warm as his character’s heart.
Daniela Candillari is the conductor and had trouble throughout opening night. First, the music from the pit regularly swallowed too much singing. Second, and more deadly, she didn’t seem to know how to make the jazz elements swing and sway, often offering music shorn of vivacity.
There is some marvelous dancing in this production. In one scene, male dancers take on the persona of trees, with the arms stretching to feel the sun. This was quite beautiful in itself, but also seemed to be a metaphor for reaching for light and understanding and hope.
In a lifetime of enjoying opera, something happened that night which I have never seen before: thunderous applause and happy hooting for an element of the performance that did not include any singing or any playing from a musician. The Act III step dancing scene at Grambling (performed only to percussive sounds the dancers themselves created) was gripping. It combined skill, precision, strength, grace, and confidence and was performed with both joy and pride. The audience ate it up.
Co-directors James Robinson and Camille A. Brown do great work in quickly sliding the large number of scenes along at a decent pace. But even so, the opera is quite long, running three hours and ten minutes, including one intermission. There are some repetitive elements that become tedious rather quickly: I completely lost count of how many times “Char’es-Baby, youngest of five” was repeated and feel confident in saying that no other major opera employs the word “mothafucka” as frequently as this one.
When the opera started, the house seemed to be slightly less full than normal for an opening night, but there were even more empty seats after the intermission.
This is a pity, because the second half of the opera delivers so much more than the first. When the opera opens, Charles is driving home from college armed with a gun. He wants to shoot the cousin who sexually assaulted him when he was a seven-year-old boy. Does this “boy of peculiar grace” give in to vengeance? And if not, what is the next step? This opera’s ending, like so many great operas, is itself merely another beginning.
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” was the first opera by a Black composer ever mounted at the Met. It is the second for Lyric Opera, after “Amistad” by Anthony Davis, which Lyric presented near the end of last century (and which I reviewed in these pages nearly 25 years ago). Blanchard and Lemmons, who received enthusiastic applause opening night, have created a moving work of art that is well worth your time.