ST. LOUIS — The composer Terence Blanchard and the librettist Kasi Lemmons, the creators of the new opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” based on the 2014 memoir, were inspired by the book’s wrenching tale of a black boy growing up, the youngest of five brothers, in a segregated rural Louisiana town. And, to their credit, they were not intimidated by it.
The memoir — by Charles Blow, an Opinion columnist for The New York Times — tells of a childhood shaped by cycles of violence, a family life of tough love and chronic turbulence, and the lasting wounds of sexual molestation. Mr. Blow offers an adult’s reflections in a book that often has the quality of a biblical jeremiad.
Mr. Blanchard, an award-winning jazz trumpeter and film score composer, and Ms. Lemmons, a writer, actress and director, found inventive ways to tell Mr. Blow’s story in the present, and on their own terms, something that came through at the premiere of their subtly powerful work by the Opera Theater of St. Louis on Saturday. (This is Mr. Blanchard’s second commission from that company, following “Champion,” in 2013.)
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One simple device was to present Charles as two characters: a young boy called Char’es-Baby (played with endearing awkwardness by Jeremy Denis, a treble) and the 20-year-old Charles, (the charismatic bass-baritone Davóne Tines), who is attending a local college. The opera opens, like the memoir, with Charles in a rage, speeding down a country road at night with murder in mind.
His cousin, Chester, who molested the 7-year-old Charles one night while sharing a bed during a visit — it’s “just a game,” Chester (Markel Reed) said — has reappeared. “Someone must die,” the older Charles sings, in a long, fervid monologue. “And maybe the part of me I despise will die with you.” Mr. Tines is gripping, at once terrifyingly volatile and sadly vulnerable. This scene is effectively suggested in the director James Robinson’s brilliantly simple, evocative production, which uses vivid video projections and movable set pieces that evoke a house’s interiors.
Mr. Blanchard has said his score is not a jazz opera, but an opera in jazz. His music bears out this description, conducted here stylishly by William Long. Restless vocal lines shift from plaintive lyrical phrases, to sputtered outbursts, to a style that seems a jazz equivalent of Italianate arioso. Often, as characters sing, threads of darting melodic lines run through the orchestra embedded within dense, chromatic harmonies. (Howard Drossin is credited with additional orchestrations.) Mr. Blanchard has a penchant for having groups of instruments and blocks of chords support and double the vocal lines. But the music, which is full of surprise twists and phrases that often get cut off, never allows this mimicking to become a predictable tick.
In the book, the troubled Charles is visited nightly by male apparitions. In the opera, these spirits coalesce into a twofold female character called Destiny and Loneliness, an idea that easily could have been clichéd. But the soprano Julia Bullock, ravishing in the role, brings out every emotional nuance in the music. Her character can be like an alluring yet dangerous siren calling to Charles. “So, you’ve come back, boy,” she says in the opening scene; “I knew you would.” But Destiny and Loneliness are figures Charles has created of necessity. And Destiny, as sung by Ms. Bullock, is also an empowering voice.
During the fraught, boisterous family scenes, the adult Charles becomes like an older brother to his child counterpart; they often sing in duo. Billie, the hardscrabble mother (the feisty, rich-voiced soprano Karen Slack), works in a chicken factory to keep her family fed and as stable as possible. Her womanizing husband, Spinner (the bright-voiced tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali), is a hopeless provider who tries to keep sweet-talking his way into Billie’s good graces. She won’t have it, and finally chases after him with a pistol she keeps handy.
Mr. Blanchard and Ms. Lemmons almost go too far in numerous soul-searching monologues that can skirt close to melodramatic excess. But Mr. Blanchard always rescues the moment by heeding the words and varying the music. Vocal lines flow from lyrical wistfulness to snappy declamations; dense big-band sonorities in the orchestra segue into lighter passages backed by a jazz rhythm section. And there are rousing evocations of gospel choruses at church, blues and, during a fraternity party, a rhythmic chorus of spoken words, finger snapping and dance steps. An aggressive edge in this dance music proves prophetic: Soon we see Charles enduring a brutal hazing.
The grim climax comes when Chester has his night with the young Charles. By not depicting what happens explicitly, the scene is all the more disturbing. We see the cousins quietly undressing for bed. Then they face the audience as Chester describes the “game.”
In the book, Mr. Blow relates agonized explorations of masculinity and sexual identity. That tangle of feelings is conveyed effectively in a dreamlike dance scene (Seán Curran is the choreographer), the opera’s most mysterious episode. Over slinky strings and slowly heaving rhythms, Charles hungrily hugs and dances with both men and women.
In an inspired touch, during the final act, Ms. Bullock takes on another role: Greta, a sweet college student whom Charles hopelessly falls for. Their rapturous love scene culminates in a night of blissful sex. Greta, seeming troubled, says they should trade secrets. Charles tells her about being molested, and Greta confesses that she is involved with another man. When she frantically rushes off, Charles frets that by opening up he has driven her away — the opera’s most poignantly revealing moment.
Destiny returns to tell Charles there is no escape, that you must be what you must be. He calls Billie, his mother, who has always told him, wisely, that you can’t keep carrying everything, that “sometimes you gotta leave it in the road.”
So, at the end of this affecting opera, Charles learns to move on by going home to his mother.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones
Through June 29 at Opera Theater of St. Louis; opera-stl.org.
Anthony Tommasini is the chief classical music critic. He writes about orchestras, opera and diverse styles of contemporary music, and he reports regularly from major international festivals. A pianist, he holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Boston University. @TommasiniNYT
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