The Lyric Opera of Chicago's outstanding premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones continues to build upon this new work's historic importance.
Last September, Fire Shut Up in My Bones was given pride of place to re-open the Metropolitan Opera in New York following 18 months of COVID-19 pandemic closure. But more importantly, Fire Shut Up in My Bones made history as the first opera by an African-American composer and librettist to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera since its founding in 1883.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is by Grammy Award-winning jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard (a longtime collaborator with film director Spike Lee) and librettist Kasi Lemmons. They found their inspiration from New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow's best-selling 2014 memoir of the same name, and their self-billed "opera in jazz" had its world premiere in 2019 at Opera Theater of St. Louis.
Now at the Lyric in the same triumphant and enlarged Metropolitan Opera co-production (which was also screened twice in HD in movie theaters and on a PBS Great Performances broadcast), Fire Shut Up in My Bones can be judged more on its own terms as a more inclusive work that expands the operatic repertory by welcoming in more African-American stories. It also builds upon the Lyric's own artistic legacy as the second work by African-American creators following the 1997 Chicago world premiere of Amistad by composer Anthony Davis and librettist Thulani Davis.
As an opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones dramatizes many of Blow's autobiographical tests of masculinity while growing up in the 1970s and '80s in northwestern Louisiana. But it also gives nearly equal weight to Blow's loving mother, whose own personal struggles and successes interweave with those of Blow.
Seen both on opening night and the understudy-filled performance on Saturday, April 2, Fire Shut Up in My Bones starts in a blaze of fury. College-aged Charles (a powerful baritone Will Liverman on opening night, and most recently Justin Austin) is hell-bent on shooting someone out of pain and revenge.
Charles' anger is both tempted and tempered by the voice of "Destiny" (the alluring soprano Brittany Renee). She later appears in the opera personifying "Loneliness" as an outgrowth of Charles' inner emotions and conscience.
The opera then becomes an extended and episodic flashback to Charles' hometown of Gibsland, Louisiana. It is most famous as the site of the bullet-filled demise of outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, and becomes emblematic of the threats of violence that bubbles up around Charles as he looks back on his sensitive younger self when everyone called him Char'es-Baby (a great Benjamin Preacely).
Char'es-Baby tries to find his sense of self as he is simultaneously embraced by the women of the community for being bright and "sweet," but also shunned by a lot of men (including his four older brothers) as a "mama's boy." That influential mother is Billie (a marvelous opening performance by soprano Latonia Moore and nearly matched by Whitney Morrison). Her actions shift from gun-wielding jealousy at her cheating husband, Spinner (the slick tenor Chauncey Packer), to one of fortitude as Billie then prioritizes providing for her family on her own terms.
At the age of seven, Char'es-Baby is preyed upon by a sexually abusive cousin. This painful memory then drastically colors Charles' personal battles in navigating his community's expectations of masculinity (which often turn toxic) and only adds to Charles' feelings of being an outsider in his own community.
Charles tries to tamp down his nightly longing for other men (which is wonderfully depicted in an Act II dream ballet sequence by choreographer and co-director Camille A. Brown). A conversion never comes when Charles turns to baptism in the Baptist Church (featuring a rousing gospel choir). And Charles then finds temporary solace from his internalized homophobia by bedding women like the fellow teen Evelyn (Emily Mwila) and his college sweetheart Greta (also embodied by Renee).
Charles' strength is also strongly shown as he survives severe hazing at Grambling State University (a troubling scene that follows an amazing and exuberant scene of step dancing by his fraternity brothers that previously drew the biggest audience cheers mid-performance).
Though the episodic and often symbolic nature of the opera can make it feel sometimes airy and too leisurely, the contemplative smaller moments cumulatively build and build. They all help show Charles' understanding of what it personally means to grow from being "a boy of peculiar grace" to becoming his own man.
Blanchard and Lemmons' melodic score accessibly illustrates the action on a lush motion-picture scale, which is lovingly shared with all the necessary swing by conductor Daniela Candillari as she leads the great Lyric Opera Orchestra.
Matching the flow of the music is co-directors Brown and James Robinson's cinematic staging. Scenes shift seamlessly with great projections by designer Greg Emetaz amid moody lighting by designer Christopher Akerlind on Allen Moyer's rustic proscenium stage-within-a-stage set design. Paul Tazewell's colorful costumes also help to root the opera back to the outfits and outlooks of the 1970s and '80s.
Compared to other operas that conclude with tragic bursts of blood and violence, Fire Shut Up in My Bones ends on a much more self-forgiving note during a crucial crossroads moment that could destroy Charles' future. The calming resolution finds Charles taking to heart the advice of his mother who has the advice to "leave it in the road" when it comes to his murderous emotions.
So there's much to admire and feel for in Fire Shut Up in My Bones. This new work serves as a massive conduit for African-American talent, plus it operatically tells a contemporary success story of a bisexual survivor of sexual abuse and poverty who becomes a writer of national prominence and insight.