Go See These Black Operas

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By Charlie Le Maignan

In one of my first newsletters, I discussed an opera about Black people written by white men and suggested that we attend, as well, to operas written by Black people. I’ve experienced two of them lately. They, like “Blues Opera,” put me in mind of our current discussion about cultural appropriation — but not in the way some might think.

I refer to Terence Blanchard’s music for the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere piece of the season, the new “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” and “Highway 1, U.S.A.” by William Grant Still — the “dean” of Black classical composers — which the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis streamed until a few weeks ago.

Both operas are couched in the lush, and even dense, language of 20th-century modern opera. With busy, intricate scoring for a classical orchestra, the harmonic language in both pieces takes us, of course, far beyond the ordinary I-IV-V kinds of progressions of popular song, and beyond that, both challenge their audiences by withholding the easy pleasures of celebrated, hummable arias such as “La donna è mobile” from “Rigoletto.”

Instead, they require their audiences to adjust to Black American characters, leading contemporary, everyday lives, who sing in a musical language developed mainly by Europeans. Both pieces seek to take classical music a step beyond what sits most easily on the ear — in relative disregard of whether today’s listeners find it relatable. It’s bold, but the results leave me with mixed feelings.

“Highway 1,” for example, is gorgeous in its orchestral richness. What Still does with a pair of bassoons is a master class. But most of the music minutely tracks characters’ shifts of feeling, impulse and intent in a way that allows little sense of predictable song. “Highway 1” is about texture, not set pieces such as “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” in “La Bohème.” It is a one-hour rendering of a domestic drama in which there are no arias, per se — no moments of catharsis when a certain type stands up and yells “Bravo!” (remember the “La Traviata” scene in “Pretty Woman”?) at least until the end.

In a way, this is naturalistic: Real conversation doesn’t usually include breaking out into speeches with a beginning, a middle, an end and rests for applause. But then, neither does real life entail an orchestra limning the contours of our subtle shifts in feeling. Music like Still’s, in other words, requires us to, as we say these days, “do the work.”

As does “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” This is a welcome work in all ways: It is the first opera by a Black American to play the Met, and the premiere piece at the post-pandemic reopening, with Blanchard blending the achingly beautiful kind of instrumental music he’s composed for cinema with lyrics and libretto.

The challenge here is to adjust to hearing the intricacy of film-scoring music sung to. Most of us have passively accepted the dense and even discordant harmonies and sounds of modern classical music in the background music of film and television shows, including Blanchard’s music for several Spike Lee films, such as last year’s “Da 5 Bloods.” But “Fire” is a work in which similar music is rendered in song.

The result is an opera in which music rarely resolves, not settling down into the home chord where it started. Or if it does, the score of “Fire” does so in a harmonically intricate way many will find difficult to reach on one hearing. “Fire” has arias, but to most listeners they will sound like they don’t quite end, which is what Blanchard intends: Like many modern opera composers, he wants to portray continuing experience rather than a succession of set pieces.

But this requires, again, doing the work. The story, based on the best-selling memoir of my New York Times colleague, the columnist Charles Blow, is indeed “arresting.” The fraternity step-show sequence is as electrifying as the word around town has noted. But even though Blanchard infuses the music with aspects of blues and jazz in spots, overall, the music is not only unparallel to how actual people express themselves — as in all opera — but is written in a modern classical language that requires the ear to reach even further than, say, “Don Giovanni” does.

We are asked, then, to process working-class Black people expressing themselves in a musical language most of which a composer such as Paul Hindemith would have found familiar. The dissociation reminds me of a moment in “Emperor Norton,” a modern opera I saw in which a character describes the power of the railroad in musical language that mimics trains not at all and sounds more like someone saying he’s dizzy and needs to lie down. I took this as a challenge but was glad I had had a lot of coffee before the performance.

In a sense, both “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “Highway 1, U.S.A.” can be seen as cultural appropriation of music typically thought of as white — a good thing in itself.

However, the tradition being appropriated here is based on a philosophy of composition and audience reception hardly inevitable. Only in the late 19th century did the custom settle in, as ordinary among Western music patrons, that one sit politely through pieces of considerable length that didn’t occasionally, and deliberately, dazzle audiences with virtuoso feats.

As such, “Highway 1” and “Fire” are, like most modern classical music works, best appreciated via multiple viewings or listenings. If memory serves, one of the Black chorus members in Virgil Thomson’s 1928 “Four Saints in Three Acts” recalled later in life that the elliptical lyrics Gertrude Stein wrote for that opera started to make a kind of sense after you sang them night after night. But suppose you get to see the piece only once? That is the kind of challenge that pieces like these two operas present: I have already bought a recording of “Highway 1” to listen to while I cook and to allow the music, over time, to get under my skin. But I worry most people who saw this piece recently are unlikely to do that. A part of me wishes it had been easier to “get” more on first viewing.

I respect operas like these, am elated that they exist and am always up for sampling others. But the two pieces I have just seen leave me with a guilty feeling I suspect many share: a desire that they appropriated from white music a little less!

In Black music that’s fused with white music, I am more excited when the musical language is more viscerally embraceable beyond sheer beauty of texture. Give me quirky melody and dense harmony, yes, but with beginnings and endings that can be gleaned and appreciated in real time, not just after close study, and jazz and blues language (as well as, perhaps, composition from other Black musical traditions) not necessarily foregrounded, but not elusive either. A workout, yes, but one that leaves me with exercise-bike euphoria.

There was once a sorry tradition among white critics of condemning any Black music beyond the hot or bluesy as inauthentic, expecting Black composers and lyricists to stay in their supposedly prescribed place. I am in no sense trying to echo them; I salute Still and Blanchard. But the alternate music I am thinking of — that I want — includes the acidic chordings of Ellington’s “Far East Suite,” the smart plushness of Wynton Marsalis’s “In This House, On This Morning” or Bill Lee’s grand, eclectic score for his son’s film “Do the Right Thing.” None of these glorious selections are confined artistically, and all infuse elements of both Black and non-Black traditions.

And they connect.

I am saying neither that I wish Still and Blanchard would simply “heat up” their work (especially as Still infused, for example, his orchestral pieces with plenty of Black folk and jazz influence, as has Blanchard in other work of his), nor do I support a notion that classical forms are burdened by a “white racial frame.” Nevertheless, I feel like these two operas leave one with work to do that reviews do not always prepare readers for. I intend to keep revisiting them to fully take them in. I hope others do as well. Acquired taste is often richer than, as it were, the easy score.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and “Woke Racism.”