NEW YORK, February 6, 2018 – At the company’s annual national press luncheon in New York, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis announced today it has commissioned the world premiere of Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Kasi Lemmons’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the memoir of celebrated writer and The New York Times columnist Charles Blow. The commission is the fifth opera in the New Works, Bold Voices series, which launched in 2013 with Mr. Blanchard’s first opera, Champion. The series is grounded in OTSL’s commitment to commission new operas that reflect the diversity of modern American experience.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones will open on June 15, 2019 and run for six performances. OTSL Artistic Director James Robinson will direct, and William Long will conduct. The acclaimed cast will include Opera Theatre of Saint Louis debuts of soprano Julia Bullock and bass-baritone Davóne Tines. Complete casting will be announced at a later date. The opera has been co-commissioned with Jazz St. Louis.
Mr. Blow’s memoir was published in 2014 and was described by the Chicago Tribune as “honest and artful… riveting.” Publisher’s Weekly called the book “brave and powerful… a singular look at a neglected America,” and The New York Times wrote, “Blow’s memoir is an unconventional jeremiad…The conflicts central to humanity are reconfigured here as fields of simple possibility: of compromise, of forgiveness, of eternal incompletion, and of the fire unleashed at long last from our bones.”
A powerfully redemptive memory story, Fire Shut Up in My Bones traces the tale of young “Charles-Baby” growing up in the tiny town of Gibsland, Louisiana – a place where slavery's legacy is closely felt, reverberating in elders' stories and in a near-constant wash of violence. The young Charles’ attachment to his mother – a fiercely driven woman with five sons, brass knuckles in her glove box, a job plucking poultry at a nearby factory, a soon-to-be-ex-husband, and a love of newspapers and learning – cannot protect him from secret abuse at the hands of an older cousin. Years of anger and searing self-questioning follow, until Charles must choose whether to perpetuate the cycle of violence himself.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be the second opera by four-time Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard, who is acclaimed as one of the most versatile and probing artists
of today. Reflecting on his broad-ranging career, The New York Times has called him “a trumpeter of expressive urgency and a composer of expansive vision.” His first opera, Champion, was described by the Chicago Tribune as “a champ in its own right…a new work of quality and staying power, one that deserves to be taken up by other opera producers far and wide.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the opera “the single most important world premiere in the 38-year history of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.” Mr. Blanchard’s music “astutely mixes neo-Romanticism with sophisticated jazz elements… capable of creating show-stopping numbers” according to The Financial Times. In keeping with the setting of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blanchard’s new score will also draw on Louisiana blues, gospel choruses, and a broad range of American musical styles.
Best known for the film Eve’s Bayou, which she both wrote and directed, Kasi Lemmons has received countless awards in the film industry, including the 2008 NAACP Image Award for her film Talk to Me. She adapted Langston Hughes’s musical Black Nativity in a popular feature film which was released in 2013 and has developed projects with HBO and ABC. Ms. Lemmons and Mr. Blanchard have previously collaborated on three of her films. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is her first opera.
Lead singers Julia Bullock and Davóne Tines are among the fastest-rising young opera stars in America today. Opera News extols, “Bullock’s radiant soprano shines brightly and unfailingly… Most compellingly, however, she communicates intense, authentic feeling, as if she were singing right from the soul.” The New York Times has called her “impressive… poised for a significant career” and “exquisite.” KQED reflected on Mr. Tines by saying, “In a just world, one in which fame was proportionate to talent, Davóne Tines would be as big a name as Kanye West.” In his recent performance in the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West (in which he appeared opposite Ms. Bullock), Mr. Tines was celebrated as “magnificent” (Los Angeles Times) and “charismatic… a tour de force” (The New York Times).
“It is thrilling to work with such an accomplished creative team on this new project,” said OTSL Artistic Director James Robinson. “Charles Blow’s story is a gripping and powerful memoir, and I am confident that Kasi Lemmons and Terence Blanchard will transform it into a potent and resonant new opera.”
Charles Blow commented, “I'm absolutely thrilled that one of my favorite musicians and one of my favorite filmmakers are joining forces with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to bring this story to the stage.”
The New Works, Bold Voices series includes Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s Champion (2013); Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek’s “27;” (2014), Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph’s Shalimar the Clown, based on the novel by Salman Rushdie (2016); and the upcoming premiere of the two-act version of Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s An American Soldier, which opens in St. Louis on June 3, 2018. The operas in the series thus far have continued on to stages across the United States, with Champion appearing in Washington D.C. at the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, in San Francisco in a co-production between SFJazz and Opera Parallèle, and in an upcoming production at New Orleans Opera. “27” has appeared at
City Center in New York and at the Pittsburgh Opera, and will open this March at Michigan Opera Theatre. Shalimar the Clown will be released by Albany Records later this spring.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is made possible in part by the Fred M. Saigh Endowment at Opera Theatre and by the Sally S. Levy Fund for New Works, which provides support for contemporary opera and related community engagement activities. Leadership support comes from the Whitaker Foundation. Major production support is provided by OPERA America’s Opera Fund.
Tickets to Fire Shut Up in My Bones will become available in May 2018 as part of subscriptions to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s 2019 Festival Season. Single tickets will go on sale in November 2018.
About Terence Blanchard
Since top-tier jazz and four-time Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard embarked on his solo recording career with his eponymous Columbia Records album in 1991, the New Orleans-born and -based artist has traveled many paths musically, including delivering adventurous and provocative acoustic jazz outings of original material, composing over 50 soundtracks and even, in 2013, debuting Champion at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which was praised by the Chicago Tribune as “a champ in its own right…a new work of quality and staying power, one that deserves to be taken up by other opera producers far and wide.” His film scores include Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, When the Levees Broke, Jungle Fever, Eve’s Bayou, Chi- Raq, Jungle Fever, Red Tails, and Inside Man. He has also, in the spirit of his onetime membership in the jazz school of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, mentored several musicians in his bands who have gone on to have significant recording careers of their own (including Lionel Loueke, Aaron Parks, Kendrick Scott, and one of his current band members Fabian Almazan). As a leader and co-leader (significantly four albums early in his career with fellow Crescent City artist, saxophonist Donald Harrison), Blanchard has recorded more than 30 albums that have often defied genres. His most recent album, Breathless, was released in 2015. He was recently named a 2018 Fellow by United States Artists, one of 45 artists and collectives to receive this prestigious recognition for their contributions to their fields.
About Kasi Lemmons
Born in St. Louis, Kasi Lemmons is an actress, writer, and director who has appeared in such films as Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, John Woo's Hard Target, Rusty Cundieff's Fear of a Black Hat, and Spike Lee’s School Daze. Lemmons’ first feature as a writer-director, Eve's Bayou, starred Samuel L. Jackson and became the highest grossing independent film of 1997, receiving the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and seven NAACP Image Award nominations, including Best Picture. In addition, Lemmons received a special first-time director award from the National Board of Review and the Director's Achievement Award at the 9th Annual Nortel Palm Springs Film Festival. Lemmons’ sophomore feature, The Caveman's Valentine, opened the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Her third film, Talk to Me, starring Don
Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Taraji P. Henson, earned the 2008 NAACP Image Award for outstanding directing. Lemmons’ most recent feature, Black Nativity, an adaptation of the Langston Hughes musical, was released nationwide Thanksgiving 2013. Lemmons has also worked extensively as a mentor and educator and is currently Associate Arts Professor in the Graduate Film Department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
About Charles Blow
Charles M. Blow an Op-Ed columnist at The New York Times. His columns tackle hot-button issues such as social justice, racial equality, presidential politics, police violence, gun control, and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Mr. Blow is also a CNN commentator and has served as Presidential Visiting Professor at Yale, where he taught a seminar on media and politics. He is the author of the critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones. The book won a Lambda Literary Award and the Sperber Prize and made multiple prominent lists of best books published in 2014. People Magazine called it “searing and unforgettable.” Mr. Blow joined The New York Times in 1994 as a graphics editor and quickly became the paper’s graphics director, a position he held for nine years. Mr. Blow went on to become the paper’s design director for news before leaving in 2006 to become the art director of National Geographic Magazine. Before coming to the Times, Mr. Blow had worked at The Detroit News.
About Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is one of the leading American opera companies, known for a spring festival of inventive new productions sung in English, featuring the finest American singers and accompanied by members of the St. Louis Symphony. As of its 2018 Festival Season, Opera Theatre has presented 27 world premieres and 27 American premieres — which may be the highest percentage of new work in the repertory of any US company. Described by the Sunday Times of London as “one of the few American companies worth the transatlantic fare,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis annually welcomes visitors from nearly every state and close to a dozen foreign countries. Although the size of the theater typically limits box office income to less than a quarter of the budget, the company has consistently produced work of the highest quality while never accumulating a deficit.
Opera Theatre also has a long tradition of discovering and promoting the careers of the finest operatic artists of the current generation. Among the artists who had important early opportunities at Opera Theatre are Erie Mills, Jerry Hadley, Christine Brewer, Thomas Hampson, Sylvia McNair, Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, Dwayne Croft, Patricia Racette, Matthew Polenzani, Nathan Gunn, Lawrence Brownlee, Kelly Kaduce, and Jennifer Johnson Cano. Opera Theatre has always been known for distinguished leadership: founding general director Richard Gaddes was succeeded in 1985 by general director Charles MacKay, with famed British stage director Colin Graham as artistic director and Stephen Lord (1992 – 2017) as music director emeritus. Timothy O’Leary was named general director in October 2008 with acclaimed stage director James Robinson succeeding the late Colin Graham.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is funded in part by the Regional Arts Commission, Arts and Education Council, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Missouri Arts Council, with audience building programs supported by The Wallace Foundation.
Generous leadership support for the services of the St. Louis Symphony is provided by the Taylor family and the late Jack C. Taylor.