Meet the Man Making Opera History - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Meet the Man Making Opera History

Meet the Man Making Opera History

By Christina Greer

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard performs during the 36th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival at Millennium Park.
SourceRaymond Boyd/Getty

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In 138 years, New York's Met hasn’t put on an opera by an African American composer. Terence Blanchard, an accomplished jazz musician known for scoring Spike Lee films, is changing that.

Christina Greer

Christina Greer

Christina Greer, Ph.D., an associate professor at Fordham University, is the producer and host of The Aftermath and The Counter on OZY, political editor at The Grio, the author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream, and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC. You can find her at @Dr_CMGreer on Twitter.

When you think of jazz, what comes to mind? Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” John Coltrane’s version of “In a Sentimental Mood” or perhaps it’s Miles Davis’ entire Kind of Blue album? Jazz was born in America and has, in a relatively short time, taken the world by storm … just like opera. I’ve seen a few operas in my time. My favorites have been Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, along with Giacomo Puccini’s  Madama Butterfly and La Bohème. Luckily for lovers of jazz, opera or both, Terence Blanchard has created an opera for the history books.

The synergy between jazz and opera is well understood by this New Orleans native. Blanchard studied composition as a child at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and was taught to never separate the two music genres. His teachers, including Roger Dickerson and Ellis Marsalis, taught that the worlds of jazz and opera were a reflection of the time and the communities in which they were created. “Jazz was a logical extension of the classical world of harmony and rhythm, so I never saw them as that separate,” Blanchard says. “The separation came from narrow-mindedness of people who did either just jazz or just classical and did not look at the other side. But not for me.”

While Blanchard’s foundation was laid in the Big Easy, his musical tastes and talents have taken him around the world. Most jazz lovers know Blanchard’s extensive work as a trumpeter with an impressive body of work. From studio albums to myriad movie soundtracks, Blanchard has created the scores for numerous films. If you’ve felt tense watching Inside Man and 25th Hour or reflective experiencing One Night in Miami and Harriet, you can thank Blanchard’s detailed and sweeping arrangements.

Many fans know Blanchard from his long-term collaborations with American filmmaker Spike Lee. The two have collaborated extensively through the decades on 17 films, including Jungle Fever, Mo Better Blues, Malcolm X and 4 Little Girls. Blanchard’s mastery of the trumpet, piano and composition has helped bring to life many facets of African American life in Lee’s films — not to mention earning two Oscar nominations for scoring 2018’s BlacKkKlansman and 2020’s Da 5 Bloods.

On Sept. 27, the Met Opera will stage Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an adaptation of fellow Louisianan and New York Times journalist Charles Blow’s 2014 memoir. This will be the first production in the Met’s 138-year history created by an African American. We met recently to discuss this groundbreaking achievement. The following has been edited for clarity and space.

Greer: What are you most excited to see when the curtains rise on Sept. 27?

Blanchard: I am so excited for the audience to experience the brilliance of Camille Brown’s choreography, the co-directing of Jim Robinson, the [libretto] work by Kasi Lemmons, and all of the incredibly talented dancers and singers in the entire production … I can’t wait for people to see themselves on the Met stage. I am excited for people to experience their culture on the Met stage.

Greer: Who will you be thinking of when the show debuts? Directing and creating this opera will place you among trailblazing icons like baseball’s Jackie Robinson and tennis’ Althea Gibson.

Blanchard: I’ll be thinking of all of the talented and qualified composers, musicians and teachers who never had this opportunity available to them. I’ll also be thinking of all of the teachers and mentors who assisted me in getting to this moment.

Greer: We’re both teachers, and I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but can the same be said of albums? With your new album Absence (Blue Note Records) coming out, do you have a favorite you’ve created?

Blanchard: I don’t have a favorite. I really don’t. And my work ethic stems from my father. He sold insurance during the day, came home, took a nap and then worked as a hospital orderly at night. He’d then take a nap before going back to work to sell insurance. He had an adding machine by the bed where he was constantly working and in the middle of all of that, he would work on music. I said that would never be me (laughter), but when you’re doing what you love it doesn’t feel like work. If a great opportunity comes my way, I have to make time for it. It’s just created a body of work that I can look at later. It’s all about being in the moment. And constantly moving forward. I want to have these experiences and constantly grow as a person and an artist.

For those interested in seeing this historic opera, visit www.metopera.org. Tickets start at $37 and the show runs on select nights from Sept. 27 to Oct. 23.  Masks required.

Christina Greer

Christina Greer

Christina Greer, Ph.D., an associate professor at Fordham University, is the producer and host of The Aftermath and The Counter on OZY, political editor at The Grio, the author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream, and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC. You can find her at @Dr_CMGreer on Twitter.

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