Terence Blanchard, the Met’s First Black Composer, Sees Opera for More People
(Bloomberg) -- Karen Toulon hosts Black in Focus on Bloomberg Television. Here, she speaks with Terence Blanchard, six-time Grammy award-winning trumpeter and composer for film and television. On Sept. 27, an opera he wrote based on Charles M. Blow’s memoir will debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be the first opera by a black composer to be performed on the Met stage. Below is their conversation, edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
Terence, good to see you.
Hey, thank you Karen. Thanks for having me. Good to see you, too.
This is the first opera by a black composer in the Met’s 138-year history. What took them so long?
That's a good question. I mean, you would have to ask them. I just know that it's an overwhelming experience for me, because I know I'm not the only one that was qualified throughout that history. There have been a lot of great composers who have come before me—William Grant Still being one of them. And I'm just standing on some very broad shoulders, man. I'm blessed to be where I am, but I'm doing whatever I can to make sure that I don't let all of those folks down.
Fire's a very complex story of identity and childhood trauma. Is part of the stumbling block the traditional sense of what opera is, what opera should sound like, what the story should be?
The biggest hurdle is being confident in our skin. Because there has been this type of approach of saying that opera should be a certain thing. And I'm not necessarily a believer in that. I think opera has always tried to tell stories. And when you look at the great composers throughout history, especially the romantic composers that most of us listen to, those tales were taken from the community from which they were created.
When we were in New Orleans with my first opera, Champion, which is about a fighter, there was an elderly gentleman, African-American man, who was in his mid-70s who came up to me, and he said: "If this is opera, I'll definitely come." And I know the reason for that is because he saw himself on the stage. And that's what's important to me about being in this world—is bringing our culture and our history to this forum.
At a place like the Met, is it also the donors? I think the Met is like, a $300 million-a-year operation. I think it's the largest cultural institution in America. Are the donors where you are, are the donors happy to support new works, different works?
I mean, I think so. Obviously, the ones that I've met are very supportive of what it is that we're doing. But my whole point about this is I don't want to be a token. I want to be the turnkey. I want this to open the doors for a lot of other people—not just African-Americans, but women and all the people of different races and backgrounds. Because there are a lot of stories that can be told in this forum. And it's a great organization, man. I'm telling you, we just finished a rehearsal with the orchestra and they were amazing, just simply amazing. The voices were amazing as well.
So you grew up immersed in music. You are from New Orleans. Your father, I believe, was a manager with an insurance company, but he also was a part-time opera singer. Your childhood friends were Wynton and Branford. You picked up the trumpet and piano when you were still in single digits. But most important perhaps, you went to a performing arts high school. There's a report out from Save the Music [Foundation] that says music programs in underserved communities are often the first to get cut. How important are those early stages? You said getting comfortable in your skin, having kids have music education, however they can get it?
Well, I think it's extremely important. It's not just music, but it's arts in general. I think a lot of kids that grow up in our society sometimes can't find a way to communicate. They can't find a way to fit in. And one of the things that art will allow them to do is to find their voice, find their path. The school was called Nocca, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. When I went to Nocca, they were talking about budget cuts and everything.
So you can't have it both ways. I think it's really important, when you look at the success of Wendell Pierce, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis—I mean, the list is endless—Harry Connick. Those are people that I just went to school with at this arts high school in my generation. And there's so many others: Anthony Mackie. Those have all been very productive people who have come from the arts high school, which is a public school in New Orleans. And they've gone on to do a lot of great things, not only in the world of art but also in their community.
You also score for film; you did Spike Lee's four-hour Hurricane Katrina doc. Is part of what's fueling, perhaps more need for music from more diverse artists, the growth of all the streaming services? And you have Ava and Oprah and Shonda and Tyler just pumping out more and more content. They all need creative people. How important do you think that is in building up that pipeline?
Well, it's extremely important. Because like you said, there's so many streaming services, but the thing is we can't just put out anything and any type of content and think that it's worthy of being on those services. We still have to aspire to a high level of excellence, which has been the history in our community.
You've just released Absence, a tribute to a saxophonist, Wayne Shorter. What's the difference between creating an album and giving birth to an opera? Is it two different parts of your brain? How does that work?
Well, I wouldn't say it's two different parts of your brain, but you know, the album is a collaborative effort with the guys in the band and myself. With an opera, it starts and ends with me. So it's a lot of work.
It took me two years to write this opera. The end result is so rewarding, to hear these beautiful voices and to see the lighting and staging and the orchestra. There's so many moving parts, but then when it comes together in a live setting, it's just a miraculous thing to experience. And I've been telling people. I say you have to stop using the word opera sometimes, because people get jaded by that term. Just like when sometimes you say jazz, people think of a certain thing. But I've been telling people, this is the highest form of musical theater that I've ever experienced.
For people who may not go to the opera, seeing you on opening night will be such a treat. What attitude should we bring when we're sitting there and taking in the performance?
I think the main thing is to empty your mind. Don't come to it with any preconceived notions, because I think those are the things that set you up for failure. I think if you keep an open mind and just allow yourself to be absorbed in it—because it is a different experience. It's not like going to a concert where you have amplified voices all over the place. These are natural voices singing in a theater. And then start to assess what you've experienced later. I did that when I was first commissioned by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis years ago. I was really inspired to be a part of that community.
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