TERENCE BLANCHARD'S OPERA ODYSSEY From memoir pages to the Music Center stage

Terence Blanchard Fire Shut Up In My Bones
Terence Blanchard Color
Terence Blanchard Rehearsal

By Stav Ziv

This April, audiences at Strathmore will have the chance to experience an opera that has not only made history but may also usher in a new era for the genre that serves a broader audience.

Terence Blanchard's second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, premiered at The Metropolitan Opera in September 2021, marking its first staged production after an 18-month pandemic shutdown. It was also the first time in more than half a century that a Met season opened with the work of a living composer. And it was the first time in the Met’s 138-year history that it presented an opera by a Black composer.

Blanchard, a seven-time Grammy winner and renowned trumpeter, describes the occasion as surreal, recalling his nervousness on the night of the premiere. Despite his apprehensions about how the audience would receive his jazz-influenced opera, the sold-out show earned an eight-minute ovation. Blanchard was particularly moved by the singers' pride and ownership of the material, as well as the diverse audience filling the grand theater.

"It was a moment that was much bigger than just going to the opera. It was a statement that we made," Blanchard says. "Opera itself was supposed to be a revolutionary platform that didn’t take any prisoners and didn't shy away from any topics. Hopefully, this [piece] will open the eyes of a lot of artistic directors around the country [to see] that there are other stories out there to be told."

Fire Shut Up in My Bones explores themes of trauma, resilience, and confrontation. It was inspired by the memoir of the same name written by New York Times opinion columnist Charles Blow. Blanchard's wife and manager, Robin Burgess, was reading the book around the time the composer was in talks to create a new work with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. When she recommended the book to her husband, the story resonated.

"Thinking about a kid who was just like me... who went through [a traumatic childhood] and came through all that was a miraculous thing," Blanchard says, pointing to "the strength and the fortitude [Blow] had to have."

The opera begins with a powerful scene, depicting a college-age Blow returning to his hometown in Louisiana to confront the cousin who had sexually abused him as a child. The narrative delves into Blow's teenage years, exploring the aftermath of the trauma that leads to that pivotal confrontation.

Copresented with Washington Performing Arts, Strathmore’s version of what Blanchard describes as an "opera in jazz" features the trumpeter and his band, The E-Collective, alongside Turtle Island Quartet and guest singers Justin Austin and Adrienne Danrich.

Rather than the full-scale production that premiered at the Met, this intimate performance includes adapted excerpts from the opera, accompanied by projections designed by visual artist Andrew F. Scott.

Michael Fox, Blanchard's agent and champion of this project, describes the opera suite in concert as a unique opportunity. "What you’re going to see are these two incredibly talented singers singing their guts out with [Blanchard’s] band. And then, when they step back to take a breath, the composer is going to step up and take a solo—the composer who also happens to be the greatest living jazz trumpet player in the world."

Joi Brown, Strathmore’s artistic director and vice president of programming, emphasizes the concert's complementary nature to the full opera experience, encouraging attendance at both. She sees it as a "personal guided tour" of a groundbreaking, current, and vital work.

"The Concert Hall is not a museum. It's not something for looking back at things that happened a long, long time ago," Brown says. "To the extent that any performing arts center can reflect the seismic changes of the world around it, it's important, and that's what we're striving for."

Brown considers it an honor to present such a defining artistic voice. "It's Terence Blanchard's year. Multiple years. It's Terence Blanchard’s decade, maybe," she says.

It certainly looks to be shaping up that way. The first opera he wrote, Champion, was produced a year after Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Met, and he's in the process of writing his third. The recording of Fire Shut Up in My Bones won a Grammy, and last year, Blanchard was named executive artistic director of SFJAZZ. This year, Blanchard’s concert at Strathmore takes place amid another run of his opera at the Met.

"It's not done resonating yet," Fox says. "I think that my daughter Charlotte will be taking her grandchildren to see this opera at the Met." (Charlotte, for the record, has yet to turn two.) And though the full-scale opera and the concert at Strathmore are two different productions, Fox is confident that "when you hear [Strathmore’s] version, you can understand why this piece is going to have so much staying power."

Strathmore and Washington Performing Arts Present

With The E-Collective, Turtle Island Quartet
& Andrew F. Scott


Featuring Justin Austin and Adrienne Danrich

Fri, April 26, 8pm
The Music Center at Strathmore

Buy Tickets

As part of Strathmore's Windows series, an educational program will precede the event. This program, developed in collaboration with Washington Performing Arts and the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts, delves deeper into the themes of the opera.


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