When the Julia Roberts character in “Pretty Woman” sees an opera for the first time, she is moved to hysterical tears and frenzied applause.
I have been an operagoer for nearly 20 years now and while I have always been in love with classics like “La Boheme” and “Carmen,” contemporary opera is what has brought me to that Julia Roberts-moment of sheer abandon of reticence or etiquette, and into full feeling of awakened emotions.
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” based on the memoir by Charles M. Blow, is perhaps the most tragic and also redemptive opera I have ever watched. This was the first time I actually cried in my seat during a performance (and luckily, my favorite opera companion and I sprung for the grand tier tickets that we refer to as our “Mrs. Bloomberg, Mrs. Musk” seats).
The poverty, betrayal, rape, abandonment, and loss is set in the 1970s in the South, focusing on a poor, Black family, and this contemporary (for opera, anyway) setting, plus being sung in English, made the emotions so raw and deep-reaching.
Rarely have opera lyrics stuck in my mind for days after a performance, and “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” had at least half a dozen that could be novels on their own.
“A boy of peculiar grace, unsafe for his race,” was a constant mantra of the production that made dessert at intermission a miniature literary analysis/social mores session.
The overtones of jazz in the score were powerful and nuanced, and clearly a source of great delight for the orchestra, who dazzled in their emphatic yet light treatment of the more playful scenes in the first act.
During the pivotal and probing rape scene, where the child and teenage characters are frozen, half-dressed, occupying opposite sides of the same bed, and an unsettled image of the young actor playing the victim is onstage, the orchestra’s tension and sorrow was pointed, yet swelled in execution.
In a scene in a bar in the seedier part of town, the entire ensemble sang, “Lord, love the sinner,” with the orchestra accentuating every hip shake and come-hither smile.
While there was an ever-present “Destiny” character (with a powerhouse voice from Angel Blue in a three-tiered role, that softened and soared with her character’s proclamations), “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” did not engage much in forceful metaphors that in other works (I love Wagner, but my God, do his productions take a lot of analysis) muddle the plotline for the audience.
In the main character’s time at college, we are treated to phenomenal step choreography that definitely was the first time seeing this art form for a sect of the Met’s regular theatergoers.
Such is the momentous magic of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”—while it has all the mainstay components of opera, there are so many new and wondrous elements that have never graced the stage before and will no doubt bring in the Met’s much-sought-after younger audience.
After nearly a year and a half away from the Metropolitan Opera House, it was the most glorious production to come back to, as if the Met itself had dug deep into American disillusionment and made it a centerpiece for its 2021 season.
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