By Alan J. Steinberg
As a New Jersey political columnist, I am known for my political passion for racial social justice. Yet outside of my family, friends, and social media contacts, few people know of my artistic passion for the opera. For me, attending a magnificent opera at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan is an experience that fills my heart and soul with supreme jubilation.
A superb opera is always a sublimely unique combination of splendor of voice, exquisite harmony of an orchestra, the enchantment of flawless staging and setting, and captivation of an intriguing plot.
I also enjoy viewing an outstanding event in the worlds of sports and Broadway theater, but for me, nothing compares with the opera. In expressing my adoration of the opera, I often paraphrase a quote by the late renowned conservative sage, William F. Buckley, Jr., describing his veneration of the music of the classical composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.
“Those who do not love Bach and cannot are to be pitied. Those who can love Bach and do not are to be despised.”
So is it with opera and me.
As a journalist, my primary social justice focus is on the continuing struggle for economic and political freedom and equality for African Americans. In virtually all endeavors of achievement, including, but not limited to the arenas of scholarship, athletics and the arts, African Americans have had to attain a degree of excellence far superior to that of his or her white counterparts before being accorded an equivalent degree of approbation. The struggles of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson and Paul Leroy Robeson in the world of sports and musical culture, respectively, are paradigms in this regard.
The Metropolitan Opera had been closed due to the COVID epidemic since March 12, 2020. No other sector of the New York City population had experienced more suffering due to COVID than the African-American community.
So it was altogether appropriate that the Metropolitan Opera reopened on Sept. 27, 2021, with the performance of Fire Shut Up In My Bones, the first opera in the history of the Metropolitan Opera composed by an African American, Terence Blanchard. This opera was an adaptation of the memoir of the travails and ultimate triumph of the famed African American New York Times journalist Charles M. Blow and features an all-Black cast.
I attended a performance in early October. The artistic excellence and historic significance of this production made this an unforgettable evening in my lifetime.
I had previously been well aware of Terence Blanchard as the composer of the musical score of every Spike Lee movie. Spike Lee is my favorite contemporary American movie producer and director. And the musical scoring of Blanchard was a major contributing factor to the excellence of Lee’s movies.
In Fire Shut Up In My Bones, however, one can observe a versatility in the talent of Blanchard that makes him unique among American composers. He translates the soulful panoply of African-American melodies, rhythms, and verbal expressions into an operatic mode. In my years of my being an operatic devotee, I have never observed such creative adaptability.
There was an aspect of this opera that made it especially enjoyable to me. I have a special appreciation for the artistry and talent of sopranos. Among my favorite contemporary operatic sopranos are Anna Netrebko, Sondra Radvanosky, Olga Peretyatko, and above all, Sonya Yoncheva.
For the first time, in Fire Shut Up In My Bones, I had the delightful opportunity of hearing soprano Latonia Moore, who played Blow’s mother, Billie. She is right up there in class and talent with all the sopranos mentioned above. Anytime she appears at the Met henceforth, I will regard it as a command performance that I must attend.
As I left the Metropolitan Opera House that night, I thought of Paul Robeson, for whom I have a special regard because of his special bond with Yiddish culture and the Jewish community. Robeson refused to sing opera or German, French and Italian art songs — the core of the classical repertoire: “I do not understand the psychology or philosophy of the Frenchman, German, or Italian. Their history has nothing in common with the history of my slave ancestors. So I will not sing their music or the songs of their ancestors.”
Robeson would have been one of the great baritones in operatic history. He would have found Fire Shut Up In My Bones a most gratifying artistic accomplishment. God bless you, Paul Robeson, wherever you are.
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
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