By CB AdamsContributing WriterTo mix musical genres – and to begin with the finale of Fire Shut Up in My Bones – this new “opera in jazz” answers the same rhetorical question raised in “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds: “What’s it gonna take to make a dream survive? / Who’s got the touch to calm the storm inside?” The rhetorical answer in general is each of us and in particular, it is the opera’s hero-protagonist, Charles.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiered Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera that bends – if not downright breaks – the style, presentation and story arc of what we think of as traditional opera. If your idea of opera is a stage full of European white people voicing the story and words of some dead white dude, then Fire will surprise you in multiple ways – not the least of which is the all-African-American cast.

First is the source material. Fire is adapted
from the memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles
Blow, rather than fables, fairy tales or fiction. Fire was created by
librettist Kasi Lemmons (director/writer/actress) and composer Terence
Blanchard (film score composer/noted jazz trumpeter). This is Blanchard’s
second commission from OTSL; the first was Champion presented in 2013.

The narrative is presented in a book-ended fashion, with the opening and concluding scenes set in Charles’ home. Correspondingly, the reason the Charles has returned to his hometown (physically and metaphorically) is explained at the beginning and reaches its resolution at the end. Within those bookends, Fire follows a linear timeline that satisfyingly links the beginning with the ending.

Jeremy Denis, Davone Tines and Karen SlackOf course, Fire is an opera and peddles the usual Big Themes (Love, Infidelity, Violence, Murder), but like the good gumbo that it is, it adds sexual molestation, sexual identity, abject poverty and fraternity hazing – not to mention the challenges and monotony of working in a chicken processing plant! Instead of Nordic mountains or an Italian villa, Fire is set in the rural idyll of Gibsland, Louisiana, with a set design that practically exudes the heat and humidity of the American South.

The music of Fire leans away from traditional Western European orchestration and into a unique patois of American jazz, folk, blues and big band performed by an orchestra/jazz combo hybrid, conducted by William Long.

 Fire efficiently packs Blow’s entire memoir into a couple of captivating hours’ worth of opera. It cinematically – and efficiently – quick-cuts from scene to scene (home shack, porch, farm fields, chicken factory, farmland, molestation bed, college fraternity party) leading to the denouement and resolution of Charles’ conflicts. The success of OTSL’s Fire is attributable in no small part to the production – weighty and evocative without being heavy – helmed by director James Robinson, making his OTSL debut.

At the premiere, the talents of Allen Moyer (set
design), Christopher Akerlind (lighting design) and Greg Emetaz (video
projection engineer), cohered as the stage morphs from scene to scene using
movable set pieces in tempo with the music, singing and action (kudos, too, to
choreographer Seán
Curran and Tom Watson, wig and makeup design). The attention to telling details
extended to the palpable bloodiness of the chicken processors (more kudos to
James Schuette for costume design here and throughout). Even the table cloths
in a nightclub scene looked like old-fashioned bottle caps, evoking the
pleasure to be found there.

Equally impressive were the principal performers of Fire. Blanchard and Lemmons solved the
challenge of presenting the lead character from age six to adult (in sung
roles) by using both a child, the delightful Jeremy Denis as Char’es-Baby, and the
adult Charles, the bass-baritone Davóne Tines. They were often in scene together, with
Charles providing context and counsel like a sort of Jiminy Cricket to his own
younger self. Along with several other young actors, it was engaging to watch
children on stage do something more meaningful than add background.

One of the opera’s pivotal scenes is the molestation of
the Char’es-Baby by a cousin, and it was one of the highlights of this
production – harrowing and nauseating without being prurient, pervey or porny.

Some of the opera’s ensemble played multiple roles, the
most obvious of which was soprano Julia Bullock who played the Chorus-like Destiny
and Loneliness as well as Greta Charles’ love-interest for a time. Bullock
transitioned among these characters easily, without calling attention to her
ability to fully inhabit and portray them. No good Southern story is complete
without a sassy and strong mama, and soprano Karen Slack as Billie, Charles’s
mother, is no exception. Her performance commanded the audience to fully
experience her character rather than sit back passively and watch and listen.

Davone Tines, Karen Slack in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”In a way, it is Billie who has the last word in Fire as Charles seems to accept her recurring advice that “sometimes you gotta leave it in the road.” To mix musical genres again, there’s a similar sentiment in “The Wiz.” It’s the notion that “Don’t you carry nothing / That might be a load.” Fire leaves on the hopeful if unsung note that moving on in life Charles will indeed “Ease On Down the Road.”

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented the world premiere of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” June 15-29 at the Loretto-Hilton Center. Fore more information visit

Shut Up My Bones”
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
June 15 – June 29

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will host Grammy-winning composer Terence Blanchard and celebrated filmmaker Kasi Lemmons for a series of public events in January, February, and March 2019. As the composer and librettist of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the latest commission in OTSL’s New Works, Bold Voices series, these two artists will discuss the creation of their world premiere opera, engage in community conversations around equity and representation in the arts, and provide unique perspectives landmark projects from across their careers.
Based on the bestselling memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, Fire Shut Up in My Bones traces Mr. Blow’s story of growing up in Gibsland, Louisiana, a place where memories and shadows of the past perpetuate a cycle of violence. The young Charles’s attachment to his mother, a fiercely driven woman with five sons, cannot protect him from secret abuse at the hands of an older cousin. Years of anger and searing self-questioning follow, until Charles must choose whether to continue the cycle of violence himself. The opera is co-commissioned with Jazz St. Louis.

The community tour featuring Kasi Lemmons and Terence Blanchard is presented with the support of a wide range of community partners, including Cinema St. Louis, Exodus Gallery, Jazz St. Louis, Left Bank Books, Maryville University, the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis University Library Associates, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Webster University Film Series. Further events with the opera’s creators will be scheduled during the 2019 season. All events are free and open to the public, unless otherwise stated. Tickets can be reserved online at, or via the Box Office at (314) 961-0644.
            Saturday, January 19, 6:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.
            Presented in partnership with Cinema St. Louis and the Webster University Film Series
Winifred Moore Auditorium (Webster University)
470 E Lockwood Ave, St. Louis, MO 63119
Tickets $5 to the general public.
Admission is free to Webster University students, faculty, and staff.
Cinema St. Louis and the Webster University Film Series join OTSL to host a screening of Kasi Lemmons’s groundbreaking 1997 debut, Eve’s Bayou. The film explores the childhood of Eve, a young girl growing up in rural Louisiana. Lauded as a “nostalgic, tragic, exhilarating reverie” by CNN, Eve’s Bayou remains one of the most vital coming-of-age films in the modern cinematic canon. Dawn Suggs, Video Department Director at the St. Louis American, moderates a post-film conversation with Kasi and the audience about Eve’s Bayou and her current project, Harriet, being released by Focus Features and featuring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., and Janelle Monáe. Tickets are $5.
            Sunday, January 20, 1 p.m. – 2 p.m.
            The Regional Arts Commission
            6128 Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63112
Producer, director, writer, and actress Kasi Lemmons joins a panel of distinguished leaders in film and television for a conversation exploring questions of representation and equity in the industry. Additional panelists include Colleen McGuinness and Catherine Neville. Ms. McGuinness has received Emmy, WGA, and PGA award nominations for her work as a writer and producer for 30 Rock. She most recently served as consulting producer and writer on Amazon’s Forever, starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. Ms. Neville is an Emmy-winning food journalist who has translated her success locally leading Feast Magazine and Feast TV on Nine Networks into the nationally syndicated PBS series TasteMAKERS, which made its debut in October. This event is a continuation of OTSL’s new Representation and Responsibilityseries, which is exploring equity in the arts, entertainment and media.
            Friday, February 1, 7:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Presented in partnership with Left Bank Books and the St. Louis University Library Associates
Pere Marquette Room & Sinquefield Stateroom, DuBourg Hall
St. Louis University, 221 Grand Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63103
 Left Bank Books hosts a special book club event in partnership with St. Louis University Library Associates highlighting Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Kasi Lemmons will explore the memoir from her perspective adapting it into an opera libretto, in a conversation with Jonathan Smith, Ph.D., Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement at Saint Louis University.
            Sunday, March 17, 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
            Missouri History Museum
            5700 Lindell Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63112
Join composer Terence Blanchard, St. Louis-based musician Lamar Harris, and other musical guests in an exploration of music and the written word. Each artist will share their storytelling experiences through musical composition and the written word, followed by live examples of these various musical languages (hip hop, jazz, opera, soul) colliding. The panel will be followed by a workshop to kick off OTSL and Jazz St. Louis’s new high school composers lab, called THE LAB. THE LAB is designed to bring students from across the region together to develop their own musical voices and explore composition across genres. Over six sessions, students selected for the program will compose new work, which will ultimately be performed at a special event in May at Jazz St. Louis.
            Monday, March 18, 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
            Jazz St. Louis
           3536 Washington Ave, St. Louis, MO 63112
Gene Dobbs Bradford, president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis moderates a panel featuring composer Terence Blanchard and other prominent musicians in the St. Louis community to discuss equity and representation in the music industry. The event will be followed by a short reception with the panelists.
            Tuesday, March 19, 6:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Presented in partnership with Maryville University
Maryville University Anheuser Busch Auditorium
650 Maryville University Dr, St. Louis, MO 63141
 Maryville University hosts a screening of Spike Lee’s newest film BlacKKKlansman, called a “stunning tour de force” by The New York Times. Based on a true story, the film follows Colorado detective Ron Stallworth, who successfully infiltrated and exposed the Klu Klux Klan. The screening will be followed by a discussion and Q&A with composer Terence Blanchard, who scored the film. A private reception including students from Maryville’s Multicultural Scholars program will be offered before the film.
 Additional community tour events are planned with Charles Blow, author of Fire Shut Up in My Bones and New York Times columnist, April 25 – 28, 2019. Details on these events and other in-season programs featuring Mr. Blow, Ms. Lemmons, and Mr. Blanchard will be announced in the spring of 2019.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is made possible in part by the Fred M. Saigh Endowment at Opera Theatre and by the Sally S. Levy Family Fund for New Works, which provides support for contemporary opera and related community engagement activities. Leadership support comes from the Whitaker Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Centene Charitable Foundation.
This production is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and made possible by an OPERA America Innovation Grant, supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. Major production support is provided by OPERA America’s Opera Fund.  A generous endowment gift from the late Pris McDonnell supports composer and librettist residencies, and audience development programming for this project is made possible by PNC Arts Alive.
In addition to the world premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis 2019 Festival Season also features three great classics from the operatic canon, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, as well as OTSL’s annual young artist Center Stage concert, led by Music Director Emeritus Stephen Lord. The season opens on Saturday, May 25, 2019. Subscriptions and single tickets can be purchased online, in person at the Loretto-Hilton Box Office, or by calling (314) 961-0644.
About Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is a spring festival featuring casts of the opera world’s most exciting singers accompanied by the acclaimed St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Each season, OTSL presents four inventive new productions in English during the months of May and June. In addition to presenting innovative interpretation of classics, OTSL is also committed to premiering new and relevant operas by prominent composers; since its inaugural season in 1976, 27 operas have premiered at Opera Theatre.
Opera Theatre’s competitive young artist programs foster the next generation of emerging American singers; these programs have been a springboard for countless artists to launch international careers.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is funded in part by the Regional Arts Commission, Arts and Education Council, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Missouri Arts Council, with audience building programs supported by The Wallace Foundation.