Aria Code S3 Ep 15
from Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones
LIVERMAN: I’ve never played a role where I saw so much of myself and my own story in it. And there’s a few times, you know, going through the score, where it’s -- you’re fighting back the tears because it gets so personal.
GIDDENS: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
JOHNSON: I identify with Charles’ feelings of being other. Until I could then recognize that I could use my otherness to my advantage.
GIDDENS: Every episode, we unwrap an aria to reveal the gifts inside. Today, it’s “Peculiar Grace” from Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard.
BLANCHARD: Once you stop chasing something that you’ll never be and accept that who you are is fine and it’s kind of cool, that can be freeing.
Now here on Aria Code, we always hear from singers, but never from composers because, well, they’re usually dead. But Terence Blanchard is the composer of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, and he’s very much with us and on the show today.
The opera is a collaboration with librettist Kasi Lemmons, and it had its world premiere in 2019 at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. It debuted at the Met this fall, and it's a big deal for so many reasons.
Not only is it the first opera to take the stage at the Met after an 18-month closure due to the pandemic, it’s also the first opera by a Black composer the Met has ever produced. As in, ever! Y’all… this was long overdue.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is based on the memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles Blow. It’s a coming-of-age story about his childhood in Gibsland, Louisiana -- a tiny town near the northwest corner of the state.
Even as a very young boy, Charles felt he was different somehow, in the way he walked, the way he talked. He felt like an outsider, even within his own family.
And family life was not easy. He wasn’t even old enough to go to school when he remembers seeing drinking, violence, infidelity, break-ups, all the bad stuff.
But then, it got even worse: at the age of 7, Charles was raped by his teenage cousin, Chester. The rest of his childhood and adolescence was clouded by shame and confusion, especially once he began to realize that he was attracted to boys as well as girls. Remember -- this was Louisiana in the 1970s and 80s, not the place you wanted to be questioning your sexual identity.
That realization is what this aria “Peculiar Grace” is all about. It’s the moment when Charles decides that in order to become who he really is -- in order to fully embrace his identity as a Black bisexual man -- he’s going to have to leave the South.
So let me introduce you to the man who wrote this aria, the six time Grammy winning jazz trumpeter, film composer, and now two-time opera composer: Terence Blanchard.
BLANCHARD: Well, the first thing about entering into the operatic world, I was scared to death, you know, and I always said to myself, if it doesn't work, you could just use the excuse that this wasn't for me, I'm a jazz musician. And I just go back to doing what I was doing before. But once I got into it, I literally tried to use everything at my disposal to help tell a story. My jazz background, my background in film, my experience of listening to opera when I was a kid, I had to bring all of those things to bear, to tell this story.
Next, the baritone who plays the role of Charles Blow in the production at the Met, Will Liverman.
LIVERMAN: To do a piece like this to open the season after an 18-month hiatus, it was a great honor considering this long pandemic and so many people wondering if we would even have an art form to come back to. And I had my doubts -- would we even get to opening night? But the energy and the vibe in the room was just so positive.
And finally, a guest who knows exactly what Charles is singing about in “Peculiar Grace.” E. Patrick Johnson is an artist, scholar, and author of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. His research for this book included interviews with dozens of African American gay men who were born and raised in the South.
JOHNSON: ...aged 19 to 93, and at the time, the thought was to include the stories of women as well, and with most things, the gay men just took the whole project over. But that project changed my life, because as they were telling their story, they were telling my story.
Now I’ve never been to Gibsland, Louisiana, and I’m guessing you haven’t either. Let’s head on down to learn about the “peculiar grace” of Charles Blow, and the music of the incredible Terence Blanchard, in Fire Shut Up in My Bones.
BLANCHARD: Well, I grew up in new Orleans, Louisiana, and I grew up in a household that was filled with music. You know, my father was an amateur baritone. He loved operatic music. He sang in church and he would also do recitals around the city. And they started me taking piano lessons when I was about five years old. And then later on, I heard a guy named Alvin Alcorn, who was a local musician who once played the trumpet, came to my elementary school, man, to give us a demonstration of a New Orleans-style music. After hearing him, I went home and told my father that I wanted to play the trumpet and he had just gotten a piano for me to have in the house. So it was an interesting day in the Blanchard household. He was like, “You want to do, what is it?” Yeah, that was crazy.
LIVERMAN: You know, I grew up in Virginia singing in a Pentecostal church and I wasn’t introduced to classical singing until High School, and we put on fully staged operas and concerts and that was my first big introduction to opera. But my roots, though are in gospel. My dad was a jazz trumpeter, and he influenced me with the music he would listen to, you know, Miles Davis and, you know, a lot of the old 70s music and funk, and my mom was a gospel singer herself, and those things are in me and a big part of who I am as a musician.
JOHNSON: I grew up in a small town in the foothills of North Carolina. The town is called Hickory, or as we say “Hick’ry,” at any rate. I was born in 1967 and even though Brown vs. Board of Education happened in 1954, schools were not desegregated in Hickory until 1969. My eldest brother. was one of the first classes to experience integration. We had a set of railroad tracks that divided Hickory, between North and South And you know, when we crossed the railroad tracks, that's where white folks lived. And when you came back, that's where everybody else lived in your neighborhood. And so I grew up in a Black and white world.
BLANCHARD: Charles is from Gibsland Louisiana, you know, Gibsland is a city of 900 people. It's an interesting part of the state. Cause most people will call it “country.” But there are a lot of very sophisticated people who just choose to live a quiet life.
JOHNSON: There's not just one experience of the South... regionally. There are differences. And you know, the South is never short on eccentric characters ever. As we know from Fire Shut Up In My Bones.
Charles’s community had some of the same people that I recognized, the dysfunctional family with the bad children, the person that folks suspected of being gay, but they didn't talk about it or they wouldn't be associated with them, the women who knew about their husbands philandering and put up with it to a certain point, but then pulled out the gun and start shooting. So all of those things, all of those things resonated with me because those were my experiences as well. And as a kid, you don't think of them as extraordinary. It's just, that's the community. And you need all of those characters to make your community work.
BLANCHARD: In this opera, we have two Charles, we have Charles the grown-up and the representation of his seven year old self. We call him Charles Baby. And, grownup Charles is actively engaged but then there are moments of flashbacks where he's, he's looking at himself, and pondering his whole existence as a kid.
LIVERMAN: And it’ a brilliant thing, you know, in the music, some of my lines are doubled with Charles Baby and I'm just recounting all of the events that led up to, Chester, his older cousin, who sexually assaulted him when he was a kid.
And then after that, he, can't shake these feelings of same-sex attraction. And he goes through this sort of emotional roller coaster.
JOHNSON: It wasn't until I was probably eight or nine that I started to notice that I liked being around certain boys, and I had one boy in particular that I loved being around him, because he was beautiful and we would wrestle together. I don't think it was sexual or I was too young to name it as sexual, but there was something about that kind of play that was exciting for me, titillating, And of course it never dawned on me that, oh, I might be gay. I didn't have that language, but I knew there was something different.
And that was also around the time that I started getting bullied. I've always had a soft, high voice, and a lisp and, “sissy” was the main thing I was called.
You come to learn that those things that are a part of who you are make you peculiar, make you stand out and many times, not in a good way. And if you don't have a counterbalance, like a loving mother or a good friend, you can internalize that. And so I identify with Charles’s feeling of being other, until I could then recognize that I could use my otherness to my advantage,
LIVERMAN: And then Act Two, continues on with me as a teenage kid going through, you know, that emotional journey of trying to find a safe place, you know, a place of, of peace and reconciliation, trying to find acceptance, whether it's in church or at the frat party or out in the woods, you know, it goes through all these things. And he still is still fighting that feeling of, emptiness, trying to rid himself from this sin that he wants to be rid of you know, these feelings of same-sex attraction.
BLANCHARD: There’s a moment after he's finally made out with a girl, he's so excited about his experience. He goes, and he finds his brothers on the basketball court, his four other brothers who always thought that he was a little different and just not cool. Right? So he walks onto the basketball court and he is screaming. “Boy, I got something to tell you,” and then one of the brothers says, “What? You finally got a made by a real girl?” It's pretty hilarious. And his brother's are happy that he's like them now, you know?
JOHNSON: When I was in high school, I had no same-sex, um, events for lack of a better word. It wasn't until I went to college my freshman year getting them away from home for the first time and I get a chance to experiment. And that's when I had my first same-sex kiss and for first same-sex sexual experience. But even then I wasn't ready to embrace a gay identity. It was just me sort of acting on what I had been feeling for some time. My sophomore year, I actually started dating a woman, dated her for several years. But by that time I really knew that I was gay and I did not want to be. And so I had suicidal thoughts, I tried to run away from those feelings, but you know, you can't hide from yourself.
BLANCHARD: The first time we hear “Peculiar Grace,” it’s sung by the character Destiny, so just like a very mystical kind of experience, you know, like a dream. And it was a couple of woodwinds that we use in it setting up the moment of him being molested.
JOHNSON: When I was interviewing the men for Sweet Tea there were many of them who, I had experienced sexual assault and they're very clear that that experience is not the thing that turned them gay, but that narrative is a common one, that one becomes gay, because of sexual trauma. And it pathologizes gayness in a way that is really unhelpful. Many of the men that I spoke to felt that it was their fault, thinking that they brought it on themselves. And those experiences complicated their journey to sexuality, so I think it's really important to disentangle sexual trauma and sexual assault from one’s sexual identity.
BLANCHARD: But then later on, when we hear Will sing it, when he says, “I once was a boy of peculiar grace,” it's a very powerful, more optimistic version of it because, you know, he's had sex for the first time, he met a girl, feels like he's growing up. He learns that he's getting ready to go to college, and it's almost like he's shedding the whole notion of being persecuted by being a little different, you know, it's almost like he's accepting it and using it as a shield of armor, if you will.
LIVERMAN: “Peculiar Grace” to me is the pinnacle point of the opera where he's trying to find himself after going through this traumatic experience and coping and trying to reconcile what happened. And it gets to this point where he's, you know, finally has overcome these things and can let that all go. And “Peculiar Grace” to me is so meaningful because I was that kid, you know, I wasn't the guy that was on the football team and the track star or whatever. Being the only child and like studying opera and doing violin, and like I dressed different, like we didn’t have a lot of money growing up so I always had thrift store clothes. I’ve never played a role where I saw so much of myself and my own story in it.
BLANCHARD: I experienced similar things. you know, I always tell people walking to the bus stop on the weekend with my horn, while my boys are playing football in the street, wasn't the most popular thing to do on the weekend.
Like Charles, when you feel isolated from your community, when you feel a little different than the norm, you can't explain it, but there is this burning desire within you to do something different. You may not necessarily know what it is, but you have a feeling that there's more in life for you to experience. And for me, once I found my voice in music, everything changed.
JOHNSON: I ended up going to graduate school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And that was the place where I came out, where no one knew me, where I was far from home and that's where I, for the first time, felt safe to date a man. And I credit him for showing me a path to what it could be to accept yourself.
BLANCHARD: The version of “Peculiar Grace” that Will sings, is orchestrated for full orchestra with the jazz piano and bass. The piano is there because I wanted it to seem like it was a jazz ballad in a sense, sometimes all of the harmony just carried by the piano as opposed to outlining it with the orchestration for the strings or whatever instruments some people would typically use. It's such a poignant moment. He's all alone in this moment, so there's a sensitivity there that I wanted people to experience.
LIVERMAN: And at this point, you know, I'm sitting down and reflecting on all of these things that happened in my life, all the chaos that Charles goes through throughout the opera.
There's a certain calmness and a stillness, and it's just like, you almost speak the words.
BLANCHARD: “I once was a boy.” The words themselves told me what the music should be. I want to follow the natural cadence of a voice. I want to follow the natural pitch lowering and rising of a voice when just reading the libretto.
Roger Dickinson, who's my composition teacher used to tell me all the time. He said, “Man, everybody wants divine guidance to just drop out of the sky. But you gotta learn how to listen.” So you have to combine your technical skills as a composer with your ability to put your ego aside, just because you can write some difficult stuff doesn't mean you need to write difficult stuff. Just because you can write dense harmony doesn't mean you should, and this libretto and especially “Peculiar Grace,” it wrote itself.
LIVERMAN: I mean this one hit home for me. You know, “I once was a boy of peculiar grace, a dangerous existence for a man of my race,” where in the world am I going to sing a line like that and an opera, something that just hits home, you know? Being a Black man in the South? You know, I'm an opera singer, but as soon as I step outside that opera house door, no matter where I'm at I'm a villain. And I remember specifically, um, I was in Dallas doing a show. I had just finished rehearsal and I went for a run throughout this rich neighborhood. And all of a sudden I see a cop car inching behind me as I was running. Then he goes ahead of me, stops. Then a second cop car comes in front of him, they stop, and they profiled me for a minute and they both tail off. So someone saw me running through the neighborhood, felt threatened, they called the cops. And portraying a black man who's gone through similar things that I've gone through and dealt with, that was something that I've never, experienced, stepping into an operatic role. And there’s a few times, you know, going through the score where it's, you're fighting back the tears, because it gets so personal.
BLANCHARD: Soon as he says it, a dangerous existence for a boy of my race, we see Charles Baby hoisted up by these dancers and he looks like he's floating in the air. And it's just a beautiful moment where Charles is shedding all of this dogma.
LIVERMAN: “Peculiar Grace,” was originally written for a bass-baritone, so some of the score is a little bit lower and Terence Blanchard was just so open, you know, he's super collaborative if I had something like. “You know, Terrence, I think this part's a little low. Can I take this up the octave?” He'd be like, “hell yeah.” You know, like that seems just like, he's a jazz musician. So what he writes is like the framework, and don't -- mind you, of course, like if something doesn't work, he'll say he'll let you know, you know, like, but you have the freedom to try things. And I admit I was actually a little shy at first because you know, I'm not used to that. Like, you know, you do what's written on the page and anything else is wrong. You know, you've got to do exactly that. But when you're working with a living and breathing composer, that's what it should be, to be able to change things based on who's singing it so we can tell this story and be successful on the stage.
BLANCHARD: We talked about how being an opera singer that comes from the African-American community, you're told to throw away your upbringing, which is most likely for most people growing up in the church. Well, with this opera I've been asking them to bring all of that back.
LIVERMAN: Bring back the R&B, bring back the gospel, the jazz. Those things that you grew up with, put that into the opera.
BLANCHARD: You know, I want to hear the entire scope of who these singers are and give them freedom to improvise.
LIVERMAN: And it just took me a minute to process that because yeah, it's true. You know, like we are taught to, like, kind of leave our musical traditions behind and just, like, stick to whatever the music is, that's what you sing. You know, I grew up in Virginia in a Pentecostal church, so the music that I was allowed to listen to was gospel, that was my roots. So when you have the opportunity to, um, you know, really put your voice into it and sing things in the way that that works for you, people read that and can feel that.
JOHNSON: The church is so much a part of my identity. I can hear a gospel song and just fall right in. I grew up singing that music and there's a certain kind of comfort in it. And there's so much queerness within the church, even some of the rituals, whether it's thought of as queer or not, because, you know, when you're twirling down the aisle that robe, singing your soprano and the church folks are, egging you on. There's a certain kind of freedom in that.
At the same time, if I had announced that I was gay, that would not have been received well. So it’s that kind of duality that is both affirming, but also repressive. So the South and religion and queerness are much, much more complicated than people realize.
BLANCHARD: Charles, to me, is a symbol for all of us. He's a symbol for anyone who feels that they have a burning desire to say something or to do something. He's a symbol for anybody that doesn't want to go with the norm because they feel something else for their existence. [And] near the end of the aria, he says, “Dreams that kept me awake, isolated,” that is the haunting part of the aria to me. But it's still a very important part of it. So that's why I wanted to emphasize the word dreams.
JOHNSON: When Charles is having those dreams about men, I think part of it is manifestation of fear, but also desire, coming out through your subconscious. There was, uh, a professor of mine who used to say “Everything will out.” I was like, “definitely everything will out?” And what she meant by that is everything will see the light of day, no matter how much you try to repress it, whether it's a lie, whether it's desire, what everything will out. We don't always know how it will out or how it will manifest once it's out, but everything will out.
LIVERMAN: He says, “I'll go north and make my way, nothing can stop me. No reason to stay. The south is no place for a boy with peculiar grace.”
BLANCHARD: The brothers come back on the basketball court to me, it's a powerful moment because even though Charles was the odd ball, he was the youngest, he was the baby, he was a little different, they recognize something in him, and they understand that he's brilliant, that he's not like them.
LIVERMAN: And ultimately it's a story of overcoming, because, you know, I am playing someone who's very much alive and is very successful. And if you met Charles Blow, you would have no idea all the things that he went through growing up, that has led him, you know, to, to be a New York Times journalist and do all these amazing things.
And Charles saw this show, and he said that “I don't recognize that person anymore,” which was just so powerful. You know, it can just wallow in that and let that sort of lead your life, or you can accept that it happened and not let it be the thing that controls your destiny.
BLANCHARD: And for me, when I'm watching them saying that “Goodbye, Gibsland, goodbye, pain, goodbye, nightmares, goodbye, shame,” I'm thinking what's on their minds of their own destiny. They have to be questioning where their lives are headed.
Once you stop chasing something that you'll never be and accept that who you are is fine, and it's kind of cool, that can be freeing. And that's why he sings, “I'm free,” You know, we extend that phrase you know, like, “Wow, is this what it feels like to be free? This is what it feels like to be comfortable in my skin,” even though he's still struggling. I mean, you know, we all have our insecurities, but that was a moment, I think, that propelled him into what he's doing now with his life. It's a testament to his resilience and an indication of how you can overcome anything. If you put your mind to it.
JOHNSON: I think that everyone's journey to self-acceptance is just that, a journey. And rather than thinking you're going to arrive at this sort of utopian moment where you've accepted everything. I don't think that moment ever comes, because when it comes to our sexuality, we're continuing to evolve.
And so I always tell young people now, now that I'm middle age, one of the things that you have to do to start the journey is to love yourself more than your fear of losing your loved ones.
LIVERMAN: It's been a long time coming for us to have Black composers’ works being featured in our American opera houses, giving voice to our Black composers, that composers of color, to tell our own stories. And this moment is so significant, just authentic blackness on stage and Black culture. and just to make it there and to feel the energy of the crowd. It was so palpable and it was an incredible evening and something that will stay with me forever.
BLANCHARD: You know, an interesting part about the question of being the first African-American composer to be presented at the Met is that, I constantly think about all of the other composers who are worthy of having that distinction before me, you know, William Grant Still, Hail Smith, [unintelligble], the list is endless, you know, it's filled with mixed emotions. I'm human, just like anybody else. And of course, it's an amazing honor to have that distinction or have that title put next to your name. That's one of the reasons why it was important to me to get it right. And to the best of my abilities, you know, you always feel like you can fix things. Even at the premiere, I'm sitting there going, Aw, I should change. That should change. But you work hard, because there are other people who deserve this distinction and I don't want to let them down. I don't want them to feel like I was a token. I think this has to open the doors for, for women and people of all different races to tell those stories, and I feel blessed to create an opera where people can see themselves on the stage. I think that door was broken wide open. And I think it's time it's was it's long, long, long overdue. We all know that.
Composer Terence Blanchard, baritone Will Liverman, and artist and scholar E. Patrick Johnson...
...decoding “Peculiar Grace” from Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Will’s coming back to sing it for you after the break.
After a childhood marked by betrayal, loss, and agonizing confusion about his sexual identity, Charles finally decides that in order to accept who he is, he’ll need to leave his hometown of Gibsland, Louisiana and head up north. Here’s baritone Will Liverman singing “Peculiar Grace” from Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard, on stage at the Metropolitan Opera.
That was a recording from the grand re-opening of the Metropolitan Opera after being closed for 18 months during the pandemic. Baritone Will Liverman found his resolution, singing “Peculiar Grace” from Fire Shut Up in My Bones by composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Kasi Lemmons.
Next time, another composer we haven’t yet featured on the podcast -- Richard Wagner. Well, his music, anyway -- he won’t actually be speaking on the show! It’ll be the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and The Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Max Fine is our assistant producer, Helena de Groot is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Mixing and sound design by Matt Boynton and Ania Grzesik from Ultraviolet Audio, and original music by Hannis Brown. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. On the web at arts.gov.
I’m Rhiannon Giddens. See you next time.