In Brussels, Black Lives Matter
The Time of Our Singing, an operatic mixed-race American family saga, speaks to our historical moment with an eloquence that transcends it
Finding one's voice: His brother is the toast of La Scala, but Joey (Peter Brathwaite) is most at home in the background, playing barroom piano.
Marian Anderson is singing to the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when a pair of music lovers meet and fall in love. David, an astronomer, is Jewish, a refugee from Hitler's Germany. Delia, a Black physician's daughter, is an aspiring soprano. A half century later, long after both are gone, their older son—a tenor who has found stardom in the operatic capitals of Europe—takes a fatal hit as Los Angeles explodes in the Rodney King riots. Thus the curtain rises and falls on the Belgian composer Kris Defoort's mixed-race family saga The Time of Our Singing, which premiered two months ago at La Monnaie, in Brussels. Call it a masterpiece.
Elliptical in its storytelling yet novelistic in detail, The Time of Our Singing touches chords of racial reckoning and remembrance that feel thoroughly of the present moment. Yet the novel the opera is based on, by the Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow Richard Powers, dates to 2004.
The economical libretto is the handiwork of Peter van Kraaij, a Belgian screenwriter and director, who, like Powers and Defoort, is white. The instrumentals are scored for a classical chamber ensemble, a jazz quartet, and a prominent barroom piano. Bach and rap, Purcell and Puccini, even the sour whine of a tuning orchestra drop in at strategic moments. But rather than the facile patchwork another composer might have settled for, Defoort delivers a tapestry, varied yet coherent, like the symphony of a master. Kwamé Ryan, a Canadian conductor of Trinidadian descent, captures its unity in diversity to perfection.
Getting it together: Claron McFadden in rehearsal as Delia, who defies family and convention by marrying a white man. (Left, Levy Sekgapane, as Delia's mixed-race older son, Joel.)
Claron McFadden and Simon Bailey head an exemplary cast as Delia and David, whose defiance of convention costs them dearly. Their two sons—Jonah, the star tenor (Levy Sekgapane), and Joey, a pianist shy of the spotlight (Peter Braithwaite)—never really make peace with their mixed bloodlines. Unlike the brothers, their sister Ruth (the sensational Abigail Abraham, in a breakout performance) embraces her Blackness with a vengeance—and with consequences as devastating as they are foreseeable, even to her. Delia's father, William (Mark S. Doss), who sees his daughter's marriage as a betrayal of her ancestry, comes down on her with the wrath of an Old Testament prophet. In sharp contrast, a flamboyant white diva (Lilly Jørstad) pushes Jonah to break every rule, yet "deals" with their unborn baby before sharing her news.
What are we to make of these characters? Of their destinies? Wherever they go, whatever they do, race bleeds in. "There's another wavelength wherever you point your telescope," David sings on his deathbed, sending a last message to his daughter, who is not there. When his words reach her, they leave her cold.
For all its compassion, The Time of Our Singing offers no pat answers. Cultural politics being what they are, I'm not holding my breath for a transfer to the Met or (better yet) to Broadway. But those are the kind of showcases it deserves.
The Metropolitan Opera strikes a blow for diversity with Fire Shut Up In My Bones
Adapted from the prize-winning memoir by the Black New York Times. oleum it's Charles M. Blow, Fire Shut Up In My Bones comes roaring out of the gate with the pedal to the metal. Our hero Charles, packing his momma's pistol, is speeding home from college to blow away (no pun intended) the cousin who molested him as a boy. Then the emotional temperature plummets for three meandering hours of flashbacks. Way stations along the path of Charles's turbulent, traumatized coming of age include a chicken-processing plant, a forest of singing trees, a bedroom invaded by a soft-focus all-male bacchanal. A revivalist baptism, taunting songs from Charles's four rowdy brothers, and a show-stopping step dance at a frat house deliver the odd brief jolt of energy.
Critics working the September season-opening premiere of Fire Shut Up In My Bones bent over backward to celebrate this, the mighty Metropolitan Opera's first-ever presentation of a work by a Black composer, Terence Blanchard, and a Black librettist, Kasi Lemmons. All too plainly, they were pulling their punches. Yet who, in our age of racial reckonings, can gainsay the sense of historic occasion? Though Black composers have been writing operas (not always on Black subjects) since the eighteenth century, few of their entries have won a place even at the outermost fringe of the mainstream repertoire. If you see just one opera this season, chances are it will be this one—if only because it's the one you've been hearing so much about.
Blanchard, a jazz trumpeter who has scored some six dozen movies, shows mastery as a conjuror of moods and gesture but no gift for dramatic continuity. His scenes, even those that start well, just stop. In his defense, Lemmons—whose screenwriting and directing chops are in evidence in films like Eve's Bayou and Harriet—has saddled him with a libretto by turns talky and purple. The choreographer/co-director Camille A. Brown—recruited to the production team since the work's premiere in St. Louis two years ago—shares some blame here, too, having lobbied for new dance numbers that add to the running time and clutter up the story.
In a cast of thousands (not really, but it feels that way), the baritone Will Liverman gives an impassioned account of Charles, much of whose music lies awkwardly in his voice. Angel Blue lends her luscious soprano to the gauzy, indistinguishable allegorical figures of Loneliness and Destiny, as well as the equally gauzy Greta, who beds Charles, wheedles his secret out of him, and then lyrically dumps him (what a user). But the performance that really pops is the soprano Latonia Moore's as Billie, Charles's pistol-packing momma, whose life is no picnic, either. She deserves all opera of her own.