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Philly theaters will broadcast ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ from Met Opera

Live performances in New York of the opera based on Charles M. Blow’s 2014 memoir have been sold out, and movie theater seats at Saturday’s live HD simulcast can be hard to come by.

Will Liverman as Charles and Angel Blue as Greta in Terence Blanchard's "Fire Shut Up in My Bones."
Will Liverman as Charles and Angel Blue as Greta in Terence Blanchard's "Fire Shut Up in My Bones."Read moreKen Howard / Met Opera

Fire Shut Up in My Bones — which is being simulcast by the Metropolitan Opera in a dozen Philadelphia-area movie theaters at 12:55 p.m. Saturday — is destined to become something rare in the modern opera world: a cultural phenomenon.

Based on New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s 2014 memoir, the Met’s first Black-authored opera by composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Kasi Lemmons explores African American life in the Deep South, post-Jim Crow.

But the main idea of the piece that opened the Met season Sept. 27 is childhood sexual abuse, expressed with intimacy and sensitivity you can’t always hope for in opera. Live performances in New York have been sold out and movie theater seats at Saturday’s live HD simulcast can be hard to come by. For any serious new opera, this kind of success is nearly unthinkable.

The central character, Charles, looks back as a Northern urbanite with a successful career on the sexual abuse that began at age 7, on his torturous road to his finding equilibrium as a bisexual Black man. The revolving Allen Moyer set shifts between past, present, and any number of locales. Jazz and operatic narrative come together in Blanchard’s use of riffs that are repeated with subtly added and subtracted notes, moving the drama forward. But in particularly serious moments, Blanchard leaves behind all stylistic anchors with music that serves the dramatic situation selflessly, such as when Charles’ mother realizes that her “boy of peculiar grace” will never fit in small town Louisiana.

Both classical and jazz critics have proclaimed the opera to be the real thing. NPR jazz writer Nate Chinen wrote “the smooth deployment of extended jazz harmony, often in breathing, fleeting passages, marks the piece as modern — as does the work of a rhythm section nestled within the orchestra.”

In the New Yorker, Alex Ross wrote, “The transitions between inner and outer worlds are handled with unfailing deftness.”

Before the opening night that I attended, I hoped for the best production for this important work. Mishaps with production elements have marred some Met openings, and , the innocent victim can be the opera itself, such as Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Missed opportunities

The absence of Scott Joplin’s 1911 Treemonisha at the Met has been discussed as a missed opportunity at the Met, though that particular piece needs a theater where audiences can be physically close to it, not Lincoln Center’s 3,800-seat behemoth. Same thing for more recent operas by Black composers presented in Philadelphia by what was then the American Music Theatre Festival, including Duke Ellington’s unfinished Queenie Pie (1986), Anthony Davis’ experimental Tania (1992), and Jon Faddis’ gritty Lulu Noire (1997).

Just because the Met is the summit of American opera doesn’t mean that every important work fares well there.

Fortunately, Fire Shut Up in My Bones had a previous outing at its 2019 Opera Theatre of Saint Louis premiere. It was Blanchard’s second successful opera. He has also scored many Spike Lee films including Malcolm X and 4 Little Girls. It’s a sturdy piece, so that even when the expansive Met stage is filled out with extraneous and possibly distracting choreography during a highly introspective aria, you still get what the music is saying. At times, the opera dallies a bit long in local color, whether it’s the Louisiana honky-tonks or the extended step routine when Charles pledges Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. But such things reveal the cultural landscape in which Charles is searching for a place he can call home.

This theme of identity and self-acceptance has universal application to all corners of our splintered society — a message also conveyed, from a different angle by choreographer Bill T. Jones in his recent theater piece Deep Blue Sea based on Moby-Dick and the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Park Avenue Armory. Artists as a unifying force in society is nothing new, but never needed more than now.

Though Fire Shut Up in My Bones is not a typical star vehicle for singers, Will Liverman (Charles), Latonia Moore (his mother), and Angel Blue (a variety of feminine ideal characters) were in top vocal and theatrical form opening night, and are likely to be even better on Saturday. A word on Ryan Speedo Green who sings the secondary role of Uncle Paul: Known locally for receiving a prestigious 2014 grant from the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund for the Performing and Visual Arts, he is emerging both in Fire and in the Met’s current Boris Godunov as a major star presence. You won’t even have to watch for him; he’s unmissable.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts, and composer Blanchard summed him up in an interview for Variety: “Watching him conducting opera is like herding elephants. It’s a huge thing. Watching him move around and keep everything together is amazing.”

Fire Shut Up in My Bones is simulcast at 12 area movie theaters at 12:55 p.m. Saturday with encore showings Oct. 27 (check local theaters for times). Information: