The Met Opera Reopens With ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’

Terence Blanchard’s cathartic composition shines in the moments it rejects traditional opera



The Met Opera opened this September with “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the memoir of Charles Blow, a columnist for the New York Times.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the composer for the opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” as well as the name of the New York Times columnist whose memoir the opera was adapted from. As of Oct. 19, 2021, this article has been updated to reflect that the correct spelling of the composer’s name is Terence Blanchard, and the correct spelling of the columnist’s name is Charles M. Blow.

Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” premiered on Sept. 27 at the Metropolitan Opera House. After a year and a half without a showing, the opera house made history in more than one way: It ended the longest closure in its history and showed its first-ever opera by a Black composer.

The opera is an adaptation of New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s 2014 memoir of the same name. It begins in the mid-’70s and follows Blow’s tumultuous upbringing in a poor, majority-Black town in rural Louisiana.

Char’es Baby, the 7-year-old known to the town and the audience by this nickname, is played by Walter Russell III. His mother, Billie, keeps him home from school to protect him from the bullying he’s bound to endure. Portrayed by Latonia Moore, Billie is a strong but tragic female character — fiercely dedicated to her children but disadvantaged by her husband’s infidelity and the limited opportunities granted to Black women in the Deep South. 

Even as he is ostracized, Char’es Baby is obstinate. He wants to go to school like everyone else and hates being called a baby — but in his town, he’s not a man. Whether or not his family and neighbors think the young boy is gay is unclear, but he’s certainly “queer” in their eyes. 

The opera takes place from the perspective of Charles, played by Will Liverman, who has a death wish for an unknown member of his hometown who, we later learn, molested him as a child. Charles sets out in a car, pistol in hand, to commit the act of murder but is forced to look back upon the sadness of his childhood by an unnamed woman portrayed by Angel Blue.

It later becomes apparent that Blue portrays the feminine, innocent side of Charles. She is an antagonistic force throughout the performance, making Charles second-guess the often rage-filled and destructive behaviors he learned from his sadistically heteronormative upbringing. At times, she is successful; at others, she is painfully repressed.

The opera was about masculinity, sexuality and what it means to be strong in the face of trauma.

During the performance, I worried the opera would serve as a stereotype: the story of a poor, majority-Black town, shrouded in violence and poverty, feeding into the preexisting notions held by the overwhelmingly white and wealthy audience. However, I found “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” to be anything but stereotypical. The opera was about masculinity, sexuality and what it means to be strong in the face of trauma more than it was a sensationalized look at being Black and disadvantaged in the United States. 

“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” truly shone in the moments in which it broke free from conventional opera. Act 2 opens with Charles’ unsuccessful attempt to find solace in an energetic and spiritual Black Baptist church. He then seeks consolation from his brothers, who mock him for attempting to share negative and intimate feelings, saying that real men keep their feelings buried. When he retorts by asking them why even as adults they all come home on Sundays so their mom can do their laundry, one of them cheekily says, “Real men don’t do laundry.” The absurd statement garnered a big laugh from the audience.

After a short break, Act 3 opens with Charles entering college. He witnesses a performance by a famous fraternity that he soon pledges into. The members perform a long dance sequence, reminiscent of the “New Jack Swing” era. As the frat brothers and their friends on stage danced and laughed, giddy as ever during the captivating performance, several white audience members began to laugh too. 

White discomfort aside, the opera’s musical score was one of its most uplifting aspects.

There was a subtle yet ever-present dissonance between the economic hardships portrayed in the play and the relatively white wealthy attendees, but this scene made that dissonance palpable. To me, they laughed not out of a mutual respect for the incredible rhythms, or even because this scene was so untraditional, but because it was so foreign to them that they found it funny.

White discomfort aside, the opera’s musical score was one of its most uplifting aspects. The orchestra sprinkled in hints of soul, blues and jazz throughout the performance, providing a reprieve from the intensity of Charles’ journey and marking a distinct pivot from the traditional operatic mood. 

As “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” progresses, it delves deeply into the long-lasting effects of sexual trauma on Charles. Even when his rape doesn’t haunt his dreams, it’s always present, subtly affecting his growth and his relationships.

With the help of his innocent feminine side, Charles accepts that his trauma does not define him.

As the opera comes to an end, the audience finds itself back where it started: Charles heading at full speed to kill whom we now know to be his rapist. However, after reliving his traumatic childhood, he is able to reconcile with his pain and accept what happened to him. Charles’ inner child reappears, who quotes his mother: “Sometimes you just gotta leave it in the road.”

With the help of his innocent feminine side, Charles accepts that his trauma does not define him and that his pain is part of the longer history of societal trauma that has been cast upon those who are not cisgender, heterosexual and wealthy white men. When Charles reaches his home, he embraces his mother. The curtain closes with the understanding that he will finally open up about the trauma he endured as a child and being able to start his life anew. 

The Met’s choice to reopen with the cathartic performance of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is a deliberate choice to reflect on societal trauma. It is a watershed moment in both operatic and theatrical history, and it is a must-see opera for any sympathetic viewer looking for hope, peace or community in a time of social tumult.