Opera Theatre of St. Louis has a notable heritage of commissioning and performing operas that examine important issues of our time. The company’s 28th world premiere, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which opened Saturday night at the Loretto-Hilton Center, is another worthy entry in that lineage.
For “Fire,” OTSL turned again to jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, composer of 2013’s “Champion,” for a second “opera in jazz.” (Like “Champion,” “Fire” is a co-presentation with Jazz St. Louis) “Fire,” with a colorful libretto by screenwriter Kasi Lemmons, gives us another gritty true story with African-American protagonists. OTSL artistic director James Robinson shaped it brilliantly in his dual role as stage director and dramaturg.
Based on the memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, “Fire” deals with Blow’s difficult childhood and young manhood in small-town Louisiana. The youngest of five boys, and the only one of them who seems to have a thoughtful bone in his whole body, little Char’es-Baby is “a boy of peculiar grace” whose mother, Billie, worries he’ll be picked on.
Billie, a no-nonsense, gun-toting woman who longs to improve herself, works in a factory dismembering chickens; her husband, Spinner, is a sometime musician in a honky-tonk and a regular womanizer. At 7, Char’es-Baby longs for love and intimacy, but there’s none to be found in his crowded, noisy household. He thinks he’s found it in his visiting cousin Chester, but instead, he is sexually abused in what Chester calls a “game,” and left traumatized. (Note to parents: although Robinson has staged this scene with the pair standing apart and facing the audience, the opera is R-rated.)
In Act I, Blanchard and Lemmons pair Char’es-Baby and Charles on the stage; they often sing together, affectingly. In the second half, the teen and young adult Charles has other companions, Destiny and Loneliness. But he gets a full ride to college, where, joining a fraternity, he’s viciously hazed. Learning that Chester has come for a visit, he heads home, determined to kill the predator.
The opera’s music, written for orchestra with jazz ensemble, is heavily jazz-inflected, melodic but seldom staying with a melody for long. There’s a boisterous gospel chorus for church, a complex and hypnotic chant-dance for the frat boys, a touch of the blues. Some solo passages (that don’t quite become arias) go on too long; the second half tends to drag after a compelling first act.
The production has a strong all African-American cast. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines gives a beautifully sung, dramatically wrenching performance as Charles, an angry young man yearning for affection. The gifted soprano Julia Bullock shines in the roles of Destiny and Loneliness (often hard to distinguish, and clad in the same shapeless schmatta), and as Greta, a young woman with whom Charles falls in love. They’re a charismatic pair who hold the stage with no trouble.
So does dark-voiced soprano Karen Slack as Billie, a strong woman who finally manages to tell her youngest son that she loves him; tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali is suitably charming-sleazy as Spinner. Treble Jeremy Denis is heartbreaking as lonely Char’es-Baby. In a remarkable ensemble, Gerdine Young Artists Katerina Burton and Rehanna Thelwell stand out.
Choreographer Seán Curran has outdone himself, particularly in a sensual scene for Charles with a series of five dancers. Allen Moyer’s set is simple and effective, aided by Greg Emetaz’s projections; James Schuette’s costumes are especially fun for the church ladies.
Conductor William Long led his split of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and a quartet of jazz rhythm players with idiomatic style, well-balanced playing and solid connections between pit and stage, all to excellent effect.