St. Louis Takes Opera by Storm
Written: Mary McHugh
Photo Credit: OTSL/Eric Woolsey/Camille Mahs
The traumatic memoir of a New York Times columnist from Gibsland, Louisiana, along with the musical score by a renowned trumpeter from New Orleans, have put St. Louis on the map in terms of innovation, arts in education, artistic collaboration and — opera. And those credited with the creation and commission of the resulting theatrical production are now headed to opening night at the Metropolitan Opera’s season premiere on Sept. 27.
James Robinson, Artistic Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, had just read New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow’s piece about his memoir, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”, which opens with a gripping scene: a young Black man, full of rage, driving down a Louisiana highway to shoot the man who molested him as a child. Robinson, who has helped to commission and produce several other “outside the box” world premiere operas at OTSL, sent an email to Blow asking if he’d consider having an opera adapted from his book. Blow responded within 20 minutes to Robinson. Yes.
“I mean it’s one thing to write a memoir because you are the one controlling the materials, the subject matter,” Robinson said, “but when you allow someone else to handle that story through words or music — that’s entirely something else.”
So, Robinson made one more important call.
Enter Terence Blanchard, the New Orleans jazz musician and composer with five Grammy Awards and two Oscar nominations (including one for Best Original Score for Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”), who is a proven force in making powerful musical statements about painful American tragedies. Including opera. In fact, Blanchard, who also wrote the music for Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” and Halle Berry’s upcoming film “Bruised,” crossed over into opera eight years ago with his first opera-in-jazz production, “Champion,” also commissioned by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis. “Champion” has gone on to a sold-out run in San Francisco and made its East Coast premiere at The Kennedy Center with additional performances in New Orleans and Montreal.
Typically, when an opera is commissioned, it can take anywhere from three to five years to create. In fact, conversations about this project first began in 2013, on the opening night of “Champion.” Robinson instantly recognized that Blanchard’s opera was sure to become a huge hit — and so he wasted no time in asking Blanchard if he’d consider writing a second opera. From that point on, Blanchard and Robinson stayed in touch about potential stories and themes for a new project.
St. Louis native and filmmaker Kasi Lemmons was brought on as librettist, the special someone who writes the lyrics to an opera. Famed for her movies, including “Eve’s Bayou” starring Samuel L. Jackson, which garnered a National Board of Review Award (Outstanding Directorial Debut) and Independent Spirit Award (Best First Feature), she has earned multiple accolades. Her film, “Talk to Me,” debuted as the opening night film of the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival and earned an NAACP Image Award (Outstanding Director in a Motion Picture). Lemmons, who had collaborated with Blanchard on prior film projects, had never written a libretto for an opera.
She, Blanchard, and the creative team, including Robinson (who served in multiple roles as OTSL’s Artistic Director, the stage director of the production, and the dramaturg for “Fire)” met with Blow in St. Louis at the beginning of the development process as they brainstormed how to tell the story of Blow’s childhood, which was heavily influenced by violence, tough love and sexual abuse. Blow stated up front to the team he didn’t want to see the final product until opening night. The pressure was on.
Additional St. Louisans cast for the production included acclaimed soprano Julia Bullock and tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali, both of whom had progressed through the ranks of OTSL’s Bayer Fund Artists-in-Training Program as high-schoolers. Jeremy Denis, a 10-year-old St. Louisan, played Blow as a child, and was joined by four “stage brothers,” also St. Louisans – Rhadi Smith (13), Najee Coleman (13), Nathaniel Mahone (16), and Jayden Denis (11). The rhythm section featured piano (with celebrated St. Louis pianist Peter Martin), bass, guitar and drums, amid the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor William Long.
“It’s a perfect culmination of what we do here at OTSL – we engage people who might otherwise not be engaged in opera. Including jazz musicians,” Jorgensen said. “Our commitment to broadening the audience for opera and speaking to powerful social issues has been in our DNA for 45 years. We have always strived to bring these relevant – and highly relatable – stories to our stage. We have produced 31 world premieres, which is more than any other opera company in the country and we have a cadre of supporters who are eager to support this work. It is difficult to overstate how unique that is in the opera world. It’s the result of this long held commitment and doing this work again and again. When you come to our theater you will experience something you’ve never seen before.”
For Blanchard, the difference in creating music for an opera, as opposed to film, is like night and day.
“When I’m writing for film, I’m familiar with what the instruments can do. With opera I’m constantly re-evaluating, am I making this jump too wide, are these notes too high, how will it speak to an audience,” Blanchard said. “And then you get into the moment where you have the libretto, and the melody works but then you get to rehearsal and realize the singer is a baritone. It’s unlike anything I have ever had to do before. No baritone sounds the same, all sopranos sound different. When you are sitting alone in a room composing, you start thinking about all these people who are involved with the show and what they are doing in their respective roles, like wardrobe, make-up, tech — and trying to write music for all of it without the action in front of you like when you compose for a movie.”
With “Fire,” Blanchard wanted to show the innocence of Blow as a child.
“As a kid, we’re all trying to find our way, and we’re inundated with what society deems is the norm. While trying to find your lane you can be persecuted, harmed,” he said. “The remarkable thing about Charles is that while he was a little different from everyone else, there was a strength and fortitude that got him through all that and it’s amazing that everything that could have deterred him from his destiny helped propel him more toward it. A subtle thing when you watch the score, but when Charles as an actor starts offstage, he sings higher and, as the opera progresses and he matures within it, his voice lowers.”
As Blanchard continued his composing, the buzz around “Fire” continued to grow.
“What really connects Opera Theatre very powerfully to St. Louis is the work that is routinely done to anchor these pieces in the community before they come to the stage,” Jorgensen said. “We took Kasi, Charles and Terence throughout St. Louis in the months before the show – from East St. Louis to West County and beyond. Local artists had a chance to interact with these professionals.”
OTSL also held numerous community conversations surrounding the premiere. Titled, “Representation & Responsibility,” the conversations explored issues of race and gender across the mediums of classical music, jazz, hip hop, film, TV and media. The series sparked dialogue about the arts and equity in the St. Louis community.
“We had so much involvement at so many levels, that by the time the piece came to the stage, our community was excited for it and engaged by it,” Jorgensen said.
In addition, Opera Theatre partnered with Wells Fargo Advisors on the firm’s ongoing Courageous Conversation series to encourage open discussion about racial equity. Wells Fargo Advisors hosted more than 600 of the firm’s financial advisors, team members, and clients for an afternoon of breakout rooms facilitated by local arts leaders, culminating in a larger panel discussion and performance with Blanchard and local artists.
The world premiere in June 2019 was tremendously successfully, with four out of seven performances completely sold out. Blow, who was in attendance with his three children onopening night, received a thunderous ovation when he appeared on stage during the curtain calls. The reviews speak for themselves: “…a bold and affecting adaptation… subtly powerful…poignantly revealing…an affecting opera” (The New York Times); “…remarkable…wrenching drama” (The Wall Street Journal); “…beautifully sung, dramatically wrenching performance…complex and hypnotic” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Sarah Bryan Miller); “Blanchard and Lemmons create space for a first-person exploration of the black perspective, framed by uniquely black sensibilities and institutions…stunning to watch…” (St. Louis American).
At a later performance, Wells Fargo hosted more than 200 members of its Black/African American Financial Advisor network. That same evening, a representative from the Met was in attendance. Of that night, Jorgensen recalls a special energy.
“It wasn’t that we just had a brilliant opera,” he said. “We had the most brilliantly engaged audience. It was a perfect night. And here we are three years later and that piece is going to the Met…it’s the cherry on top of that.”
When the curtain opens in New York in September it will be a historic occasion — the first production by a Black composer in the Met’s 136-year history, and the first OTSL commission to be re-mounted there. Robinson and Camille A. Brown, who both also created the Met’s recent production of “Porgy and Bess,” are co-directing “Fire.” Brown, who is also the production’s choreographer, becomes the first Black director to create a mainstage Met production. Visit www.metopera.org/season/tickets for more information and tickets.
“We are changing the opera canon here in St. Louis, defining the canon of the future, defining who will be the future of this art form, onstage, backstage, and in our administrative staff,” said Jorgensen. “At Opera Theatre, we are innovators — changing our community by encouraging dialogue about the issues of our time. Defining the future of this art form is our aspiration.”
Non-traditional programming might be considered a risk for many American opera companies — but the St. Louis passion for innovation holds true even when it comes to opera. In 2019, OTSL’s festival season attendance increased by six percent from 2018, with ticket buyers from 46 states and 17 countries. Audiences of color grew by 13 percent and Millennial households were up 50 percent over the prior year. Ticket sales for Opera Theatre’s successful Young Friends program for audiences 45 years and younger increased by 25 percent and philanthropic dollars from Young Friends members grew by 19 percent.
And Blanchard? Following the production run, he caught his wife googling homes in St. Louis on Zillow.
“I’m not divulging any secrets here when I say we went back to New Orleans praising St. Louisans for their arts community,” Blanchard said. “You have so much free art in St. Louis; even kids can experience great art.
“I love the fact that this opera community is a true community. Volunteers pick you up at the airport in St. Louis and they tell me, ‘I read that libretto and it was a fascinating read.’ And these are not paid people. They just love opera,” Blanchard said. “I feel like I am in another universe when I come here. This is what St. Louis is all about. One minute I’m at an elementary school in the inner city, an hour later at a board meeting with the opera financial reps with their spreadsheets. It’s like being in a company and working your way up from the mailroom. Every point along the way you have opera enthusiasts and people so giddy about being part of the St. Louis scene in opera. It really spoils you when you go to other places. My wife? She’s still looking for places to live in St. Louis.”
Right now, Blanchard’s friends from all over the country are calling to congratulate him on the Met’s premiere, ordering tickets, booking New York rooms.
But as Blanchard says, no matter where the show may land in the future, “Fire” has only one moniker: #STL takes opera by storm.