First Met opera by a Black composer to be simulcast at UCLA

4 min read

UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music Distinguished Professor Terence Blanchard recently became the first Black composer to debut an opera at the Metropolitan Opera in their 138-year history. Students of the GRAMMY-winning, world-renowned jazz trumpeter and educator were invited to a special Los Angeles screening of the opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, in advance of Saturday’s planned simulcast in Lani Hall on the UCLA campus on October 23rd at 9:45am.

The opera is an adaptation of the powerful memoir by Charles M. Blow and tells the story of his journey to overcome trauma and hardship. The touching story leads to a climax when Charles must choose how to live the rest of his life, rebuilding from that moment forward.

An all-star, almost all-Black cast paint a portrait of a young man’s turbulent upbringing in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera.

Inaugural Dean Eileen Strempel and Steven Loza, chair of Global Jazz Studies at the Herb Alpert School of Music, helped coordinate an opportunity for Blanchard’s students to see their beloved professor’s historic achievement with the generous support of the Metropolitan Opera. Many of these students were experiencing opera for the first time, but they know their professor’s jazz compositions intimately. “You could definitely feel Terence’s mindset in the music because I’ve listened to his other works, but they sound nothing alike. He’s the epitome of the word versatility,” says Jordan Casciato, a baritone saxophone player at UCLA. Casciato is one of the students who was invited to attend a special preview of the opera on Tuesday afternoon.

UCLA Global Jazz Studies department chair Steven Loza joins a selection of Terence Blanchard’s students before the special Los Angeles pre-screening of Fire Shut Up in My Bones – Live in HD

“This was totally different [from operas like Don Giovanni],” according to bassist Matthew Wilson. His classmates agree. As saxophonist Steve Murillo enthused, “That was my first time seeing an opera. And it’s funny because it felt like this was very new, very modern.”

Blanchard is best known for his cinematic collaborations with director Spike Lee and his many award-winning film scores. Fire Shut Up in My Bones represents his second opera to date. His compositions express his roots in jazz, but as Casciato noted, category-defying versatility is a hallmark of his work. The professor and Kenny Burrell Chair in Global Jazz Studies at UCLA is a favorite among his students who view his achievement as awe-inspiring. Wilson puts it well: “I can’t believe he’s flying back here to teach our class. I feel so special.”

The stars of this opera include baritone Will Liverman as Charles, as well as soprano Latonia Moore as Billie and Walter Russell III as Char’es-Baby. UCLA’s own soprano alumna, Angel Blue (M.A. 2008) performs as Destiny/Loneliness/Greta. Blue has become an international opera sensation since earning her master’s degree in music performance in 2008, with a career spanning over 30 countries.

UCLA alumna, soprano Angel Blue (M.A. 2008) and baritone Will Liverman

The Met production is co-directed by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown – the company’s first Black female director – with sets designed by Allen Moyer and music directed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Filmmaker Kasi Lemmons created the libretto for this opera; the first Black librettist to have her work performed by the Met. A collaborative litany of talent brings Fire Shut Up in My Bones to life, but as Blanchard noted, “I know I’m not the first African American qualified to be in this position. I want the people whose shoulders I’m standing on to be honored by what we put on the stage. It’s because of them that I’m here doing this.”

To celebrate this historic opera, The Herb Alpert School of Music has collaborated with the General Manager Peter Gelb and The Metropolitan Opera team to bring a special simulcast of Fire Shut Up in My Bones to the Bruin community. This showing will be held in Lani Hall at 9:45 am, on Saturday, October 23 and will be preceded by an opening message from Distinguished Professor Blanchard. Members of the Bruin community are invited to join The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music as we share in the success of one of our own in this historic moment in opera history.

Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones – Live in HD
Lani Hall Theater
October 23, 9:45 a.m.