The Met in New York City saw something it hasn’t seen in its 138-year history: an opera by a Black composer.
There’s more: It was the first performance on the famed music hall’s main stage directed by a Black director.
Louisiana was key to this history.
Gibsland native Charles Blow wrote a 2014 bestseller titled "Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” a memoir about his childhood in rural northern Louisiana and the trauma he suffered at the hands of an older cousin. The book turns on the decisions he had to make, whether he would let bad things take control of his life or choose a different path. He graduated from Grambling State University and went on to become a nationally recognized graphics editor with The New York Times before he became a opinion-page columnist with the nation's leading newspaper.
New Orleans native Terence Blanchard has had quite an eclectic musical career, and Monday night he became the first Black composer to present his work at The Met.
Blanchard, 59, grew up in Pontchartrain Park and studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts before going on to produce more than 20 albums, win several Grammys, scored dozens of movie and get two Oscar nominations. But The Met? He described The Met experience, with all of the related New York attention, as “otherworldly."
The Met opened with "Fire" for the 2021-2022 season, but the opening was even bigger than the annual excitement because it had been closed since the pandemic started. Lots of people watched Met performances online during the pandemic. This was the first time since the coronavirus restrictions were required that about 3,600 could gather to see a live performance. A number of screens were set up for another 2,000 to watch in Times Square, a tradition for 15 years. More screens were available for another 1,700 in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem.
We can’t imagine what Garvey might have thought of an opera being viewed in a park named after him based on a book by a Black author and a score produced by a Black composer.
Perhaps Garvey's revolutionary spirit and life would be confounded by this epochal event in the life of one of America's greatest cultural institutions. Or perhaps he would have been satisfied or even proud, as we are. America's capacity for growth is once again demonstrated.
In a recent Times column, Blow put the moment in context, in part by sharing his thoughts about the book upon which the opera is based.
"If you are going to write a book like mine, you have to have a great purpose and a greater mission. It has to be about you, because that’s what a memoir is, but it also has to be about much more than you," he wrote. "I settled on a purpose while writing the book: I had suffered — from childhood sexual abuse and the questioning and shame in its wake — because I hadn’t had the language, skills and courage to better navigate what I had experienced. Now I had all three, chiefly the language."
In an interview with The Times-Picayune | The Advocate’s Keith Spera, Blanchard said he connected with Blow’s memoir and he was happy to have The Met opportunity. “I take pride in the fact that he suffered so much as a kid, triumphed and became such a success,” Blanchard said. “Him being from Louisiana added to my interest in telling the story. You always want your own community to be proud and see the possibilities of what could happen if you put your mind to it."
We are proud that Blanchard and Blow made it in New York — at The Met — proving that people from Louisiana are talented and capable of much.