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Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard's unexpected path into the opera house

In September of 2021 at the Metropolitan Opera's gala opening night, the curtain rose not on Puccini or Verdi, but on an opera by the American jazz trumpeter and film score composer Terence Blanchard. Fire Shut Up in My Bones wove together jazz, blues, and symphonic sounds to tell the true story of a Black man confronting the traumas of his childhood. It was the first time in the Met's 138-year history that America's leading opera house presented an opera by a Black composer.

I couldn't be there that night. I was in California, working on an album of music by Scott Joplin that begins with music from Treemonisha, which he finished in 1910, hoping to produce the first great Black American opera. The complete work was finally staged in 1972, some 55 years after Joplin's death. It wasn't until 1949, when William Grant Still's Troubled Island came to New York City Opera, that an opera by a Black composer was performed on a major American stage.

Being "the first" can be very lonely, unless you wrap yourself in the embrace of the ancestors who came before you. As he returns to the Met with his opera Champion, Terence acknowledges, with gratitude and humility, the lineage of Black composers whose music was often unrecognized in its time, but whose work ultimately made his success possible today. He's hopeful about what can come next, and recognizes his role in leading change that is such a long time coming.

The triumph of Fire Shut Up in My Bones prompted the Met not only to present Champion this season and reprise Fire next year, but also to shift the balance of its programming, with a commitment to commissioning works that tell diverse stories. As Terence's music invites new audiences into the velvet splendor of the opera house, it is redefining this art form, and welcoming the next generation of composers and singers into a future full of possibilities.

Copyright 2023 Classical California

Lara Downes
Lara Downes is among the foremost American pianists of her generation, a trailblazer both on and off the stage, whose musical roadmap seeks inspiration from the legacies of history, family and collective memory. As a chart-topping recording artist, a powerfully charismatic performer, a curator and tastemaker, Downes is recognized as a cultural visionary on the national arts scene.