Five-Time Grammy Award Winner Terence Blanchard Tapped as First Black Composer at Metropolitan Opera in 136 Years

Photo: Mark J. Terrill (AP)

It’s 2019 and black folks are still making history with “first feats”—in entertainment, of all places.

We’ve come a long way...but we still got a long way to go.

It’s great news that Terence Blanchard has been tapped to compose the operatic adaptation of New York Times opinion columnist Charles Blow’s gripping memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones for an upcoming production by The Metropolitan Opera.

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With the announcement also comes the distinction of the Grammy award-winning jazz great being the first black composer to do so in the hallowed hall’s 136-year history.

“He’s a brilliant composer,” the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb told the New York Times about the New Orleans native, who has scored the music for every Spike Lee film since 1992's Jungle Fever.

Blanchard with Lee in Philadelphia, circa 2003.
Photo: Jessica Griffin (AP)

Blanchard, who composed music for the Stephen Byrd-produced all-black 2012 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, was nominated for his very first Academy Award in the Original Score for Lee’s BlackKklansman earlier this year. (Black Panther won.)

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“I wish my father was alive,” Blanchard said with Thursday’s announcement. “He was an avid opera fanatic.”

Fire Shut Up In My Bones premiered at the Opera Theater of St. Louis earlier this year, scripted by Eve’s Bayou writer/director Kasi Lemmonsthe director of the upcoming Debra Martin Chase-produced Harriet Tubman biopic.

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Blanchard previously composed the opera Champion, based on the real-life story of bisexual boxing champion Emile Griffith, who ended up killing his opponentafter he made homophobic remarks and sexually harassed him during the weigh-in before the fight.

Originally published in 2014, the Fire Shut Up In My Bones has been described by Kirkus Review as “a hardscrabble memoir about growing up poor and black in rural Louisiana.”

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“But this memoir isn’t about his professional development as much as the psychosexual and emotional roller-coaster ride of his upbringing.”

In its review, the Chicago Tribune praised Fire Shut Up in My Bones as “an honest reflection of a life,” in which “Blow has taken the time to describeoften in loving detailwhat people and places look like, giving the reader’s visual imagination plenty to work with as he contemplates crucial life questions that this story so eloquently articulates.”

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Blow, also a popular subject matter expert and CNN commentator was thrilled to share the news with his 534,000 plus Twitter followers.

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Gelb said that he hopes “there will be many more African-American composers whose work we feature.’’

Let’s hope. In 1974, Labelle—the soaring songbirds also known as Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash—made history as the first pop act to act to play at the veritable venue, considered one of the most prestigious in the world.

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In the meantime, all-black opera-loving eyes (and ears) are on the Met this season—with its new production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess starting performances on Sept. 23. The James Robinson-helmed production—featuring choreography by Tony Award nominee Camille A. Brown—marks the first Met performances of the classic American opera in nearly 30 years.

 

 

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About the author

Karu F. Daniels

Hailing from "the thorough borough" of Brooklyn, Mr. Daniels has written for The New York Times, Associated Press, CNN, Essence, VIBE, NBC News, The Daily Beast, The New York Daily News and Word Up!