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Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My bones
Aug 2, 2022 | by Rusty Aceves
Terence Blanchard (photo by Cedric Angeles)
This week, former SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director brings two distinct projects to SFJAZZ for his week of performances. The first two nights are dedicated to Absence, his 2021 Blue Note album dedicated to Wayne Shorter, but we are focusing our attention here on the second project — the Bay Area premiere of music from his historic opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones.
- The Story
These performances feature music from Terence Blanchard’s groundbreaking opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on journalist and author Charles M. Blow’s powerful memoir chronicling his early life in rural Louisiana.
Blow’s candid 2014 autobiography recounts his struggles to define his manhood, sexuality, and personal values in the rural South of the 1970s, and his attempts to break free from the repression imposed upon him by his family, his church, and his college life. The rage and violence that were kindled within him after the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his cousin and his desire for revenge inspired the book and opera title, adapted from Jeremiah 20:9:
“His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.”
- The Opera
The same night in 2013 that Blanchard premiered the original version of his first opera Champion: An Opera in Jazz* at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, he received the commission from the arts presenter for a follow-up work.
Blanchard’s wife and manager, Robin Burgess, read Blow’s book and recommended to the trumpeter as a good story to set as an opera, and that he should read it.
After meeting with the author for his blessing, the couple enlisted actress, director, and screenwriter Kasi Lemmons to write the libretto. An Independent Spirt Award and NAACP Image Award winner, Lemmons is known for her work as director of the films Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me, and the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, and her roles in Spike Lee’s School Daze and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.
The opera is presented in three acts, each devoted to a pivotal period in Blow’s early life and was scored for full orchestra with soloists and chorus.
- The Premiere and the Met
Fire Shut Up in My Bones premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis on June 15, 2019, conducted by William Long. The original production featured bass-baritone Davóne Tines as Blow, soprano Karen Slack as Billie, and soprano Julia Bullock in multiple roles.
The work was picked up by New York’s Metropolitan Opera and was selected to open their 2021–22 season on September 27, 2021, starring Will Liverman, Angel Blue, and Latonia Moore, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Opening night was not only the Met’s first performance in nearly 18 months after the COVID shutdown, but it was also the prestigious organization’s first production of an opera written by a Black composer or Black librettist in its 130+ year history. The final performance of the Met’s production was streamed live to cinemas around the world on October 23, 2021 as part of their Live in HD series.
- These Performances
The first two nights of Blanchard’s week (Aug 4–5) are devoted to his 2021 Blue Note release Absence — a recording celebrating the trumpeter’s mentor, jazz legend Wayne Shorter — accompanied by his E-Collective quintet and the renowned Turtle Island Quartet, who appear on the album.
This group of musicians will be on hand for the second two nights (Aug 6–7), performing selected material from Fire Shut Up in My Bones, along with operatic baritone Will Liverman from the Met performances and soprano Karen Slack from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ premiere engagement. These shows represent the Bay Area premiere of this material that so captivated audiences.
Making each performance a truly multimedia event, visual artists Andrew Scott and Matt Unkenholz will bring the feel of the opera to Miner Auditorium through SFJAZZ’s immersive media system.
- The Performers
The core group for the two performances of selections from Fire Shut Up in My Bones is Blanchard’s E-Collective quintet, which has been his primary working unit since the release of Breathless, their 2015 debut for Blue Note. Following some personnel changes in the rhythm section made after their debut recording, the band has consisted of the leader along with guitarist Charles Altura, keyboardist Fabian Almazan, bassist David Ginyard, and drummer Oscar Seaton. For these dates, Berkeley-raised keyboard virtuoso Taylor Eigsti will stand in for Almazan.
Bringing the story of Charles Blow to life, baritone Will Liverman will reprise his portrayal of the central character from the Met production, and soprano Karen Slack will perform the songs of “Billie,” the character she portrayed in Opera Theater of Saint Louis’ original production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones.
Formed in San Francisco by violinist David Balakrishnan in 1985, the Turtle Island Quartet are two-time GRAMMY winners and the world’s premier string quartet dedicated to jazz. Since their self-titled 1988 debut album, the group has recorded 18 albums and performed with the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Manhattan Transfer, Paquito D’Rivera, and others. The current lineup includes Balakrishnan, violinist Gabriel Terracciano, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, and cellist Naseem Alatrash.
Terence Blanchard with his E-Collective, the Turtle Island Quartet. and operatic vocalists Will Liverman and Karen Slack perform music from Fire Up in My Bones on August 6 and 7. Tickets are available here.
*A revised version of Champion premiered at SFJAZZ in 2016 as part of the 2015–16 Season while Blanchard was an SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director
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