Terence Blanchard, the Met’s first black composer, sees opera for more people

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(Bloomberg) – Karen Toulon hosts Black in Focus on Bloomberg Television. Here, she chats with Terence Blanchard, six-time Grammy Award-winning trumpeter and composer for film and television. On September 27, an opera he wrote based on the memoir of Charles M. Blow 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 stage at the Met. Below is their conversation, slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Terence, good to see you. Hey, thank you Karen. Thank you for. Glad to see you too.

It is the first opera by a black composer in 138 years of Met history. What took them so long? It’s a good question. I mean, you’d have to ask them. I just know it’s an overwhelming experience for me, because I know I’m not the only one who has been qualified throughout this story. There have been many great composers who came before me, William Grant Still being one of them. And I’m just standing on really broad shoulders, man. I’m blessed to be where I am, but I’m doing everything I can to make sure I don’t let all these people down.

Fire is a very complex story of identity and childhood trauma. Is part of the stumbling block the traditional sense of what opera is, what should opera look like, what should the story be? The biggest obstacle is having confidence in our skin. Because there has been this type of approach to say that opera should be a certain thing. And I don’t necessarily believe it. 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, these 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 man, an African American man, who was about 70 years old, who came up to me, and he m ‘said: is the opera, I will definitely come. “And I know the reason is that he saw himself on stage. And that’s what’s important for me to be in this world – bring our culture and history at this forum.

In a place like the Met, is it the donors too? I think the Met is like a $ 300 million a year operation. I think it is the greatest cultural institution in America. Are donors where you are, are donors happy to support new works, different works? I mean, I think so. Obviously, those I have met are very supportive of what we are doing. But all I want to say about it is I don’t want to be a token. I want to be turnkey. I want this to open the doors for a lot of other people, not just African Americans, but women and all 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 amazing. The voices were also amazing.

So you grew up immersed in music. You are from New Orleans. Your father, I believe, was a manager in an insurance company, but he was also a part-time opera singer. Your childhood friends were Wynton and Branford. You picked up the trumpet and the piano while you were still single digit. But perhaps most importantly, you went to a performing arts high school. There is a report from Save the Music [Foundation] which says that music programs in underserved communities are often the first to be cut. How important are these first steps? Did you say that you feel good about yourself, that kids get music education, however they can get it? Well, I think it’s extremely important. It’s not just music, it’s art in general. I think a lot of kids growing 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 find their voice, find their way. 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 that’s really important, when you look at the success of Wendell Pierce, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis — I mean the list is endless — Harry Connick. These are people with whom I just went to school in this artistic high school of my generation. And there are so many more: Anthony Mackie. These are all very productive people who come from the artistic high school, which is a public school in New Orleans. And they continued to do a lot of great things, not only in the art world but also in their community.

You also score for the cinema; you made Spike Lee’s four hour Hurricane Katrina documentary. Is part of what is fueling, perhaps more need for music from more diverse artists, the growth of all streaming services? And you have Ava and Oprah and Shonda and Tyler putting out more and more content. They all need creative people. How important do you think this is in building this pipeline? Well, this is extremely important. Because like you said there are so many streaming services out there, but the point is, we can’t just post just anything and any kind of content and think it’s worth it. be on these services. We still have to aspire to a high level of excellence, which has been the history of our community.

You have just released Absence, a tribute to saxophonist Wayne Shorter. What is the difference between creating an album and giving birth to an opera? Are these two different parts of your brain? How it works ? Well, I wouldn’t say they’re 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 begins and it 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 see the lighting, the staging and the orchestra. There are so many moving parts, but when it all takes place in a live setting, it’s just a miraculous thing to experience. And I told people. I’m saying sometimes you have to stop using the word opera, because people are jaded by that term. Just like when you sometimes say jazz, people think of a certain thing. But I told people, this is the highest form of musical theater I have ever experienced.

For people who may not be going to the opera, seeing you on opening night will be a real treat. What attitude should we adopt when sitting there and watching the show? I think the main thing is to clear your mind. Don’t come with preconceived ideas, because I think these are the things that set you up for failure. I think if you keep an open mind and just let yourself be absorbed because it’s a different experience. It’s not like going to a concert where you have amplified vocals all over the place. These are natural voices that sing in a theater. And then start to assess what you went through later. I did this when I was first commissioned by the Opéra Théâtre de Saint Louis years ago. I was truly inspired to be a part of this community.

© 2021 Bloomberg LP

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