By CB Adams
To mix musical genres – and to begin with the finale of Fire Shut Up in My Bones – this new “opera in jazz” answers the same rhetorical question raised in “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds: “What’s it gonna take to make a dream survive? / Who’s got the touch to calm the storm inside?” The rhetorical answer in general is each of us and in particular, it is the opera’s hero-protagonist, Charles.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiered Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera that bends – if not downright breaks – the style, presentation and story arc of what we think of as traditional opera. If your idea of opera is a stage full of European white people voicing the story and words of some dead white dude, then Fire will surprise you in multiple ways – not the least of which is the all-African-American cast.
First is the source material. Fire is adapted from the memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, rather than fables, fairy tales or fiction. Fire was created by librettist Kasi Lemmons (director/writer/actress) and composer Terence Blanchard (film score composer/noted jazz trumpeter). This is Blanchard’s second commission from OTSL; the first was Champion presented in 2013.
The narrative is presented in a book-ended fashion, with the opening and concluding scenes set in Charles’ home. Correspondingly, the reason the Charles has returned to his hometown (physically and metaphorically) is explained at the beginning and reaches its resolution at the end. Within those bookends, Fire follows a linear timeline that satisfyingly links the beginning with the ending.
Of course, Fire is an opera and peddles the usual Big Themes (Love, Infidelity, Violence, Murder), but like the good gumbo that it is, it adds sexual molestation, sexual identity, abject poverty and fraternity hazing – not to mention the challenges and monotony of working in a chicken processing plant! Instead of Nordic mountains or an Italian villa, Fire is set in the rural idyll of Gibsland, Louisiana, with a set design that practically exudes the heat and humidity of the American South.
The music of Fire leans away from traditional Western European orchestration and into a unique patois of American jazz, folk, blues and big band performed by an orchestra/jazz combo hybrid, conducted by William Long.
Fire efficiently packs Blow’s entire memoir into a couple of captivating hours’ worth of opera. It cinematically – and efficiently – quick-cuts from scene to scene (home shack, porch, farm fields, chicken factory, farmland, molestation bed, college fraternity party) leading to the denouement and resolution of Charles’ conflicts. The success of OTSL’s Fire is attributable in no small part to the production – weighty and evocative without being heavy – helmed by director James Robinson, making his OTSL debut.
At the premiere, the talents of Allen Moyer (set design), Christopher Akerlind (lighting design) and Greg Emetaz (video projection engineer), cohered as the stage morphs from scene to scene using movable set pieces in tempo with the music, singing and action (kudos, too, to choreographer Seán Curran and Tom Watson, wig and makeup design). The attention to telling details extended to the palpable bloodiness of the chicken processors (more kudos to James Schuette for costume design here and throughout). Even the table cloths in a nightclub scene looked like old-fashioned bottle caps, evoking the pleasure to be found there.
Equally impressive were the principal performers of Fire. Blanchard and Lemmons solved the challenge of presenting the lead character from age six to adult (in sung roles) by using both a child, the delightful Jeremy Denis as Char’es-Baby, and the adult Charles, the bass-baritone Davóne Tines. They were often in scene together, with Charles providing context and counsel like a sort of Jiminy Cricket to his own younger self. Along with several other young actors, it was engaging to watch children on stage do something more meaningful than add background.
One of the opera’s pivotal scenes is the molestation of the Char’es-Baby by a cousin, and it was one of the highlights of this production – harrowing and nauseating without being prurient, pervey or porny.
Some of the opera’s ensemble played multiple roles, the most obvious of which was soprano Julia Bullock who played the Chorus-like Destiny and Loneliness as well as Greta Charles’ love-interest for a time. Bullock transitioned among these characters easily, without calling attention to her ability to fully inhabit and portray them. No good Southern story is complete without a sassy and strong mama, and soprano Karen Slack as Billie, Charles’s mother, is no exception. Her performance commanded the audience to fully experience her character rather than sit back passively and watch and listen.
In a way, it is Billie who has the last word in Fire as Charles seems to accept her recurring advice that “sometimes you gotta leave it in the road.” To mix musical genres again, there’s a similar sentiment in “The Wiz.” It’s the notion that “Don’t you carry nothing / That might be a load.” Fire leaves on the hopeful if unsung note that moving on in life Charles will indeed “Ease On Down the Road.”
Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented the world premiere of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” June 15-29 at the Loretto-Hilton Center. Fore more information visit www.experienceopera.com
Shut Up My Bones”
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
June 15 – June 29