Terence Blanchard wants to be a turnkey in the opera world, not a token


Listeners of Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter” might have been surprised to hear the singer break out into an operatic aria in the middle of her not-country-country album. One keen listener who wasn’t shocked was Terence Blanchard, the legendary jazz musician and composer.

“Here’s the thing about that: She’s been doing it for years,” Blanchard said over Zoom, noting that he’s seen Beyoncé sing an aria during a concert and worked with her on a Pepsi commercial that reimagined the opera “Carmen.”

“The opera world has relied on its history for the longest time, and now is the time to create new history, to push the boundaries,” Blanchard said of an artist like Beyoncé exposing listeners to the genre. “I think the operatic world is ready for it.”

Blanchard has done more than most to bring about a new age for opera in the 21st century. The Grammy Award-winning musician and frequent collaborator of Spike Lee first branched out into the form in 2013 with “Champion,” about the life of boxer Emile Griffith, before debuting “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” in 2019.

In 2021, “Fire” opened the opera season at the Metropolitan Opera, both marking the return of opera after a pandemic-related shutdown and, perhaps shockingly, becoming the venue’s first opera by a Black composer in its 138-year history. When the latter fact was first brought to his attention, Blanchard recalls having mixed emotions as he thought about great African American composers — Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, Hale Smith — who never got a shot at the Met.

“My name always has to have an asterisk by it, because I may be the first, but I wasn’t the first qualified,” he says.

For Blanchard, the debut of “Fire” represented several opportunities for opera, including introducing audiences from diverse backgrounds to the form and letting African American singers raised in church music or jazz and R&B bring their full range of musical acumen to bear.

“It’s really created a lane for all of these different cultures to exist in the operatic world in a way that’s natural, where we’re not trying to make them be something that they’re not, we’re just accepting them for what they are,” he says. “The main thing about my presence here is I can’t be a token, I have to be a turnkey.”

In “Fire,” Blanchard helps unlock the emotional core of a memoir by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow. With a libretto by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, the opera is a moving reimagination of Blow’s real-life perseverance through adversity and trauma. While Blanchard did not share Blow’s experience of abuse, he related to the story as someone who grew up isolated: the kid in glasses carrying his trumpet to the bus stop. But he knows the specifics of the memoir and opera have resonated with audiences who see themselves in the story.

“There was a guy who came up to me in the lobby while I was talking to some other people, and he was in tears. He just said, ‘Thank you, I’m a survivor,’ and walked away,” Blanchard recalls of one performance. “That’s one of the reasons that we do these stories: to help uplift people and help people heal.”

“Fire Shut Up in My Bones: Opera Suite in Concert.” April 26 at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. strathmore.org. $38-$108.

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