Dialogs: “Talking Race at the Opera” by the Chicago Humanities Festival

I gave high praise to Terence Blanchard's opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones. The opening night performance at the Lyric was filled with excitement and local luminaries. The following evening, I was privileged to listen to Blanchard and the conductor Daniela Candillari in a program by the Chicago Humanities Festival: Talking Race at the Opera was moderated by former Tribune music and opera writer Howard Reich. The setting was the historic Chicago Temple building.

Howard Reich and Terence Blanchard. Photo by Todd Rosenberg 2022.

Blanchard and Maestra Candillari were very comfortable talking about the latest presentation of the opera. Fire Shut Up in My Bones made its debut in St. Louis before going to the venerable Met in New York. Chicago appears to be their favorite hands down. Blanchard commented on hearing his music at the Lyric was unlike any experience he previously had. There was also the admonition that this was not the first opera written by a Black person. It was the first to be performed at a major opera house.

When the production was at the Met, he was shown a book of operas by African American composers, including William Grant Still, that never saw production because the powers at the time did not think that a Black person could write classical music. He commented that there are so many Black composers that were never heard of because of the times in which they were living. "I would be the first but not the first qualified," which drew applause from the audience. People didn't understand that in music "the tradition is to break tradition." Blanchard grew up with his father singing classical music. "He had a beautiful baritone and the records that he would play were like gold." He recalled the group of Black men that his father sang with and how deeply that influenced him. He also related to being the outsider himself; while his buddies were playing ball in the street, he was trundling off to music lessons with his trumpet.

Howard Reich, Terence Blanchard, and Daniela Candillari. Photo by Todd Rosenberg 2022.

Canderllari commented that Blanchard's experiences were part of the DNA of the music. She and Blanchard laughed when she said, "I hope you don't hate me but, this was one of the most challenging pieces I have ever done." The tempos would change and there was always an undercurrent of jazz with five local jazz musicians added to the orchestra. Candillari said that it was rewarding to play with such wonderful musicians and to have so many traditions in one score. She paraphrased Russian poet Pushkin saying that "if you want to tell a global story, tell me about your village." That is how the score was also approachable as well as challenging. In essence, we all have a version of the same story, and that transcends race.

Howard Reich took questions from the audience and I was one of a few who got to ask a question. I mentioned the Step music and culture that was in Fire Shut Up in My Bones and how I didn't see it as 'hazing' when Charles pledges Kappa Alpha Psi, the Black fraternity. Why did he include it in the opera? He nodded and said, "They were going to take that portion out and I said no. It is an integral part of African American college life." He agreed that it shouldn't be called hazing because Black fraternities and sororities were a response to not being welcome on campuses. One of the rites of passage is the step line where dance moves and rhythmic punctuation are part of a pledge being admitted. There is paddling but that is a part of bending and not breaking, which is another theme in the fraternity culture being portrayed. They have transcended the ugliness and brutality of slavery in brotherhood.

A highlight of the opera for him, Blanchard said, was Billie's aria about sending Charles off to college and how each of her boys took a piece of her. He mentioned that it was a tribute to Black mothers who are the backbone of their families. The aria was a bravura performance by Latonia Moore that brought down the house. We were treated to the song by Ryan Center alumna Whitney Morrison and Lyric assistant conductor William C. Bellingham. It was very moving and a reminder of the sacrifices that all mothers have to make. Morrison gave it a searing interpretation as Blanchard sat in with his eyes closed- taking the beauty of the music in.

Whitney Morrison, Howard Reich, and Terence Blanchard. Photo by Todd Rosenberg 2022.

Blanchard said that he "had to take his ego out of the project and learn to receive the music." He also reminded the audience, "Opera is the people's music and a deeply ingrained part of whatever culture from which it comes." He also told the audience to support the lead baritone of Fire Shut Up in My Bones--Will Liverman--next year when he brings his own opera Factotum to the Lyric for the 2022/2023 season. It was profoundly moving when Blanchard said, "Music can heal and allow us to grieve the trauma and move forward." Words to keep close in these fractured times in our nation.

More information can be found on the Chicago Humanities Festival website, where the program is archived.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.