St. Louis is on a milestone roll. After 52 long years, hundreds of thousands gathered downtown on Saturday to celebrate our St. Louis Blues as NHL Stanley Cup Champions (we got the cup!). Thousands more tuned in on their TV or mobile devices to watch the parade and rally. That same evening, a few hundred of us gathered at the Loretto-Hilton Center For The Performing Arts on the campus of Webster University to celebrate yet another hometown historic moment: the sold-out, world premiere of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis’ co-commissioned opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” This was the OTSL’s 28th world premiere, and the second such joint project by two of St. Louis’ finest arts and cultural institutions.
A sold-out premiere of an opera is a rare achievement in and of itself. The significance of this world premiere, however, is much greater than a debut of a brand-new opera. It is a revolution in the world of opera, one which started for us several years ago when we collaborated with OTSL and the notable Terence Blanchard on our first opera, “Champion.” “Fire,” along with premieres of “The Central Park Five” and “Blue” this summer, is part of a new era of operatic storytelling, one that is driven by African Americans and which focuses on the narrative of Black America.
Written by St. Louis-born librettist, writer, actress and director, Kasi Lemmons, and composed by Mr. Blanchard, “Fire” is based on the memoirs of New York Times Op-Ed Columnist and CNN commentator, Charles M. Blow. The Orchestra Rhythm Section features some of Jazz St. Louis’ finest musicians (Bob DeBoo, Peter Martin), including JazzU alum, Matthew Sewell! This is the first opera project for Ms. Lemmons, and the second for Mr. Blanchard, who has composed more than 50 film scores and Broadway shows and is an Academy Award nominee and multiple Grammy winner.
An emotionally charged and powerful story, “Fire” is moving and unlike your typical opera experience. It’s described as an opera in jazz. With elements of gospel, blues, soul, and jazz, and even “step-dance” has a place on this opera stage, the performance will literally have you moving in your seat, even if it’s just bopping your head to the beat. At times, the music is subtlety dissonant, reflecting the emotional turmoil of the story unfolding onstage. But more than a story of black culture or race, “Fire” is an exploration of concepts of sexuality and masculinity, both relevant topics in today’s social setting.
But even with the success of “Champion,” “Fire” wasn’t a guaranteed slam dunk. “Everything was new when we did ‘Champion,’” recalls Gene Dobbs Bradford (Jazz St. Louis’ president and CEO). “A jazz opera isn’t so novel now. But Terence is someone who continually evolves. He takes lessons learned and now brings something new and interesting to the stage.”
This evolution in storytelling has been a long-time coming, but the timing may just be right and on-point given our current social / racial climate and gender-identity conversations. “Fire” has already opened to rave reviews (see The New York Times and St. Louis Post Dispatch). Mr. Blow himself, who attended the premiere, shares a unique review as both subject matter and spectator here.
Perhaps most thrilling for us at Jazz St. Louis is that we are here, in St. Louis, among a rich collection of cultural organizations. We get to be a part of this scene where so many wonderful and groundbreaking performances are being created, including a new collaboration between Jazz St. Louis, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, The Big Muddy Dance Company and the Nine Network of Public Media. Inspired by Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, that is derived from Shakespeare’s works, it combines Shakespeare, dance, jazz and will be hosted in the Public Media Commons at the Nine Networks of Public Media. One might expect a world-premiere such as this to occur in Los Angeles or New York. But it’s taking place right here, this fall, in St. Louis.
Whether you indulge in the arts or not, “Fire,” “Champion,” and the numerous performances and projects showcased by other organizations like Jazz St. Louis are all things St. Louisans should take note of and be proud. Not only do we have a rich cultural scene, but we have an exciting, growing, and evolving scene. Amazing stuff is happening right here in our own backyard! Our arts and cultural institutions are turning heads and making waves, and the world is watching St. Louis. Sign up for our newsletter below to stay up to date with all Jazz St. Louis news, information, and events!
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” runs June 19, 21, 23, 27 and 29. Tickets range from $27-$128 (excluding fees). For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit opera-stl.org or call 314-961-0644.