By Patrick O’Brien
In the very white, very old-accustomed world of opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a radical new work for both its Black writers (score by Terence Blanchard; libretto by Kasi Lemmons) and its focus on the contemporary Black American experience. It may also be radical as an opera that feints toward a bloody ending—indeed, given what happens to its protagonist Charles, it probably wouldn’t put too many people out of sorts if it ended bloodily—but, instead, it ends with people listening to what needs to be said.
In a pre-show video shown on press night, Blanchard mentions how, in a powwow with Charles M. Blow, upon whose memoir the opera is based, a passing use of the phrase “boy of peculiar grace” latched onto Lemmons. To hear Blanchard say it, she’s a keen listener herself.
“Peculiarly graceful” could be an apt description for the opera as a whole, as it pushes and pulls itself in wonderfully conflicting directions, yet keeps its poise. It dives headfirst into a suffocating realm and still finds the air it needs to breathe.
In the economic yet poetical libretto, “peculiar grace” means many things about Charles (Will Liverman as an adult; Benjamin Preacely as a child, a.k.a. “Char’es-Baby”). It refers to his soft-spokenness in a household with four older brothers and so much noise; his need for intimacy from a mother (Latonia Moore) who’s distracted giving her all to keep her family afloat; his vivid imagination in a small nose-to-the-grindstone town; his nascent queerness in a world of testosterone-addled heteronormativity. The deck is stacked against him, really. So, at curtain-up, as he speeds down the highway out to confront his demons, he is goaded by the voice of Destiny (Brittany Renee) to take his place in the cycle of passion, anger, and retribution.
Both Blanchard and Lemmons have strong film backgrounds, and their skill sets adapt well to the opera house. Like a well-focused camera, we are always zeroed in on Charles, even if the stage is often filled with people at boisterous backyard barbecues, blues bars, or Baptist services, even if Charles himself is often lost. The casting of both Liverman and Preacely plays a huge part in this, too; they themselves are magnetic in these very inwardly focused roles.
They sing like champs, too. Like the best film scores, the music is focused, keen, rich, always supporting and never overpowering, especially as its spikier jazz begins to open up to Steineresque lushness by Act Two, as Charles becomes old enough to articulate his loneliness (joined by the voice of Loneliness, Renee again) and joins his mother as her equal. If Charles is the soul of the opera, mother Billie is the heart of it, and Moore is as full-blooded and full-throated a heart as any.
That lushness comes to a head early in a gorgeous Act Two ballet wherein Charles’s blooming sexuality is entwined with ever-looming terror. Choreographed by co-director Camille A. Brown, her work there is only topped by a fraternity step dance in Act Three, which is as thrilling as it is martially severe, especially as it turns into a hazing. Heartbreaking, too, as a now-adult Charles endures the torture with a self-hypnotizing lullaby.
“We don’t break, we sway,” so sang the sturdy trees that acted as Charles’s friends. Even as Charles endures his torments, he must eventually break. Either he can break down, or he can break away. Fire reminds us that coming of age is not only a matter of reckoning with where we came from; it’s also of choosing what we will become, what we will take us and what we’ll “leave on the road.”
Blanchard’s interview again: After seeing the opera, Charles M. Blow, in high praise and gratitude, said to him and Lemmons “That [man onstage is] not me.” He reached a breaking point, but he didn’t break; he talked, people listened. Audiences will certainly be swayed.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones runs through April 8th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr. For tickets or more information, please call (312) 332-2244 or visit lyricopera.org.
All ticket holders will be required to show a valid photo ID and proof of full vaccination against the COVID-19 virus. Facial masks, worn properly over the nose and mouth, will be required for all patrons for the duration of their time in the theater.
Photos by Todd Rosenberg and Cory Weaver.