By Don Roth
This week the Metropolitan Opera, arguably the most influential performing arts organization in the US and certainly the largest, re-opens with the first opera in its long history written by a Black composer, Fire Shut up in my Bones by Terence Blanchard. Fire, which premiered at St. Louis Opera Theater (as did Champion, Blanchard’s first opera), is co-directed by James Robinson, who directed it in St. Louis, and Camille A. Brown, the first African-American to direct a work at the Met.
At the Mondavi Center, we feel a special connection to this important (and long overdue) moment taking place in New York City this week. Terence Blanchard has been a regular presence on the Jackson Hall stage, most recently in 2018, when he and his amazing E-Collective performed a program of new music deeply influenced by the Black Lives Matters movement. Associate Executive Director Jeremy Ganter and I attended the premiere of Champion, and, for some moments had hoped we might convince Terence to bring a suite of music from that amazing piece. I was privileged to be in conversation with Terence at the opening of the 2017 Western Arts Alliance conference about the intersections between his work as jazz composer and performer, film composer (primarily for Spike Lee’s films) and opera composer. He spoke, in particular, about the change in his role as a bandleader, in full control of musical direction, with having to share that role with a librettist. Clearly, after two terrific operas composed, he has mastered that balance. I also was lucky when attending the St. Louis run of Fire to run into Terence in the lobby of the Chase Hotel, where he was in conversation with a gentleman who when googled turned out to be the director of new works for the Metropolitan Opera. I suspected at the time that something special was in the works.
Eight months after Terence’s last appearance at the Mondavi Center, we presented Camille A. Brown and her dance company in early December 2018. Her work uses modern dance as a medium to reflect on the Black experience in America, both present-day and historically. It was a stunning evening. Since then Ms. Brown has been called upon to create work on major stages (Once on this Island on Broadway; Porgy and Bess at the Met) and film (Ma Rainey’s Big Bottom), before being asked by the Met to direct the new Blanchard opera. For us, Camille Brown’s work was part of a long tradition at the Mondavi Center of presenting outstanding artists whose work is infused with and reflects upon the critical issues of our place and time.
Terence Blanchard and Camille Brown this week are part of what one hopes is a major inflection point within the “classical” arts in America, as their work takes center stage in that grand opera house at Lincoln Center. It also is a moment of pride for those of us, like Jeremy Ganter and myself, who work on bringing programs to our Mondavi Center, that encompass the most important and interesting voices of our time. Here in our small university town, we can experience the work of artists with resonance across the wide world of the arts and our society.
► Read NPR's Review here.